Friday, July 24, 2015

Third Party? Two are More Than Enough (with Larry Dunphy)

Why We’re Leaving the Party

Though we may be different in many ways, in one way we have found common ground. We both see the partisan politics and their destructive influence on our Republic.

It is apparent that the federal government has been rendered incapable of any coherent and comprehensive action by the intransigence of competing political parties; and we’ve both been eyewitnesses to this same dynamic in the Maine’s Legislature.  This destructive polarization harms the reputation and credibility of Maine’s government and more importantly, frustrates the creation of policies that affect the lives of everyday Mainers.  In our conversations with the people of Maine, we hear a common theme that this dysfunction that has grabbed the throat of Maine politics chokes the common sense out of our elected officials’ ability to serve their constituents.

Political parties have functionally become vehicles by which special interests exert inappropriate influence in government. One need only look at the list of donors to the two major parties and their candidates by political action committees to see this impact.  Some donors are so cynical that they contribute to both parties and competing candidates to ensure influence.  No elected official will readily admit that contributions to one’s party or one’s campaign affect the decisions he or she makes while in office; unfortunately, this assertion doesn’t pass the straight face test.  And don’t let the “clean elections candidate” label fool you either.  Many such candidates themselves operate PACs that raise funds, and in turn donate them to their party, which then in turn operates to secure the candidate’s or others’ election.  It’s no coincidence that many of these candidates, when elected, find themselves in leadership positions within their party and in the Legislature. 

Once in office, your representative is subject to the powerful influence of these parties.  Ask your legislator if he or she has been pressured to reverse his or her vote by a party leader.  Ask your legislator if he or she has been pressured to reverse his or her vote on reconsideration of a veto in order to support a governor.  Ask your legislator if he or she has really read and understands the bills on which he or she has voted or has merely relied on the caucus position.  The answers will not surprise you, but they are not the answers that the people of Maine will want to hear.  Party politics are directing Maine’s future, not the people of Maine.

Recently a $6.7 billion budget negotiated behind closed doors by four party leaders, and the unspoken influence of each was that “I can deliver 2/3 of my caucus” with this “compromise.”  Unless your legislator or senator was directly involved in these negotiations, he or she had little input, and since there were no public hearings on these agreements, no citizens’ voices were heard.  Maine people and their elected representatives had no seat at the table.   

We treat policy work as a team sport, and there are only two teams.  We fall easily into the rhetoric of “Democrats do this” and “Republicans think that” because it’s easily comprehensible to us, reducing everything to black and white.  It becomes easy for us to choose one side and denigrate the other, ignoring the complexity of the issues or even the very issue itself.  The party sound bites are much easier to throw out to a media that no longer investigates the truth.  This “us and them” thinking allows us to treat our fellow citizens with disdain, dismissing all of the other things about them that are positive.  To see this, one needs merely to read the online comments below any news story. 

Our politics has become fraught with dirty, personal attacks. By polarizing our conversation, we polarize our community and we polarize the way we think about issues.  We change the way we think about the people who hold opinions different from us.  We conclude that somehow, they are mentally deficient or woefully uninformed or motivated by evil intent. Consequently, our government becomes dysfunctional, not the representative democracy it was designed to be. 

The truth is the ideas and opinions of our citizenry are varied, complex, and wonderfully diverse.

Both of us represent small towns where Town Meeting is how issues are decided.  Of course there is disagreement and heated discussion.  But somehow, absent the influence of political parties, the citizens muddle through and do what’s best for their community and remain friends through the disagreement and discussion.  And the community is stronger for it.  Our politics in Augusta and Washington could be informed by this tradition.

Both of us have become good friends, and we respect our differences.  We trust that the other is sincerely trying to do the best thing as he understands it.  We disagree on a great many things but we also agree on others.  We recognize that issues are complex and require conversations and not arguments.  We both agree that the polarization of our politics and the disproportionate power of our parties have undermined the functioning of our government and frustrated our elected officials’ abilities to vote their conscience and properly represent their constituents.

So the Democratic and Republican parties in Maine each have one less member.  We are free to work together on complex issues, agreeing where we can, and disagreeing when we must.  Whether we agree or disagree, we will be civil, respectful, and responsible to our constituents and we will remain friends and true to the ideals of a truly representative democracy.

Larry Dunphy is a Legislator from North Anson and a former Republican, and Brian Jones is a former Legislator from Freedom and former Democrat.

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