It’s that time of year again. Everywhere you go, the conversation quickly turns to the disturbing and hideous political ads that are clogging our airwaves, relentlessly tearing down not only candidates but also our political system as a whole.

These ads are effective, they tell us, because we’re inclined to believe the worst about people in politics. And, of course, the more negative ads we see, the more we become susceptible to them. And that is creating a dangerous downdraft for democracy as a whole.

If you ask politicians who are running these ads, they’ll say that their contribution to the pollution of the airwaves is too small to really make a difference. It all reminds me of the conversation we were having in Maine about water and air pollution when I was a kid. When I was growing up along the banks of the Kennebec in Waterville, all of the houses had a sewer pipe that emptied directly into the river, and everyone blamed the people upstream for the river’s destruction. Nobody assumed any responsibility.

The system was eventually changed, but only through bipartisan action in Washington, and in states across the country. In that case, Congress not only established regulations against pollution, but also sent money to towns like ours to build sewer systems.

Now we face a similar conversation when it comes to the pollution of our airwaves. Every candidates says, “It’s not my fault,” even while their campaign sewer pipe is pointed directly at our living rooms.

But today, Washington can’t even agree on the time of day. Congress is more infested with ideological and partisan gridlock than any Congress since the days just before the Civil War, and arguably since political parties began to emerge during George Washington’s presidency.

Something profoundly different is at work now. It is a form of gridlock and the dismemberment of opponents that seems determined to destroy the country in order to save it.

The cumulative effect of political advertising, over time, is what is most troubling. Political pollution is not only unsightly but also destructive. It teaches our children to fight dirty to get their way. It teaches future candidates how to run. And most importantly, it keeps much-needed talent out of politics and public service altogether.

Americans have begun to absorb what these ads tell us, which is that every politician is dishonest, self-absorbed and out to enrich themselves. It is teaching all of us, without our even recognizing it, that government as a whole cannot be trusted. We are being slowly poisoned against our own democracy.

However Maine’s elections turn out a week from Tuesday, one thing is abundantly clear: We have to fix our elections before they drown us in a sea of hatred, arrogance and murky sludge. Of the many changes that need to be made, and that we have any control over, two rise above all others.

 The first is to restore some of the integrity of Maine’s groundbreaking Clean Election Act, by closing the loopholes that allow interest groups to circumvent limits on campaign funding. Here’s how it works now: A candidate takes public funds for their campaign and, in exchange, agrees to strict spending limits. Then an “independent” outside group spends unlimited money supporting them or tearing down their opponent.

The folks who brought us the Clean Election Act are going back to the voters next year to fix some of those problems. Sign one of their petitions if you seen them gathering signatures on Election Day.

Here’s my idea: Reduce Clean Election funding to a candidate by the same amount that is spent by so-called “independent” groups to help them. When there’s nothing to gain from independent spending, candidates will find a way to make it stop. It won’t be easy to implement, but that’s no excuse for inaction.

 The other essential change is to establish a single open primary for all candidates, which I’ll write more about in a few weeks. That primary would winnow the field down to the two best candidates, who would then go on to a November election.

Right now, party primaries select who two of the “major” candidates will be, in a process that oftentimes involves only a tiny fraction of the voters. It is a system that puts a high value on party conformity over new ideas and leadership.

With increasing frequency it has produced candidates who are either too far to the left or right. I offer as primary evidence – and as a warning sign for the future – Gov. LePage, who is the most shockingly underprepared governor in our lifetimes.

Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group in Freeport. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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