Call it Bizarro Maine politics – moments when traditional Down East decorum, cooperation and civility are replaced with nastiness, indecency and over-the-top personal animus.

Or, as Peter Mills describes it, government by reality television.

“We’re becoming kind of a ‘Judge Judy’ court,” said Mills, a former Republican state lawmaker whose family has a long history of involvement in Maine politics. “And it’s not good for our society. Nothing gets done in this environment. It’s like road rage.”

And there have been a lot of outrageous moments lately.

Most recently, a Westbrook city councilor made a comment about assassination and Gov. Paul LePage meeting his maker. Last month, a former Democratic state representative from Biddeford flipped a jar of Vaseline toward LePage as she was hauled away by his security detail. The Vaseline, of course, was symbolic of LePage’s lewd comment in 2013 about a former Democratic state senator whom he accused of having “a black heart.”

That same year, LePage climbed into a F-35 Lightning II flight simulator and gleefully relayed his fantasy to a Pratt & Whitney technician: “I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up.”

And somewhere around this time, the governor held one of eight meetings with a group of conservatives who were advocating for the arrest, trial and hanging of House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and former Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, for treason.

Each of those moments, and more, have catapulted Maine into the national media with more frequency than would otherwise be warranted by its small population and meager political clout in national politics.

While the events are amplified by the media attention and reverberations in social media, some political observers wonder if Maine has been yanked from its solitary orbit of practical, pragmatic and solution-based politics by the black hole of acrimony, tribalism and partisan sorting that researchers are documenting throughout the rest of the country.

Daniel M. Shea, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, believes Maine has drifted into the national slipstream of uncivil political discourse. Partisan debates are fueled by mutual distrust and a feedback loop absent of divergent viewpoints.

“We’re only connecting with people that share our beliefs,” he said. “We don’t want to hear the other side.”

Shea’s argument is buttressed by last week’s events.

On Tuesday, Westbrook City Councilor Paul Emery told an audience of nearly 150 people that he wouldn’t be bothered if LePage “met his maker.” Emery, who appeared to be playing to the desires of a mostly anti-LePage crowd, then confidently meandered to a cringe-inducing digression about assassination as a “political strategy.”

Some might argue that the drama in Maine politics is reflective only of the individual perpetrators and personalities who grab the lion’s share of headlines. However, there’s evidence throughout the past several years that suggests Maine is following a national trend.


In 2014, the Pew Research Center released findings from a massive survey that found that Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last 20 years.

The findings seemed to dovetail with an ongoing media narrative that our politics are more polarized. However, researchers such as Shea and Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina say they see something else in Pew’s findings.

Polarization hasn’t increased, they argued. If it had, the survey would have shown more people identifying as Republicans and Democrats. Instead, the study showed that the gulf between the two sides was wider than it has been in recent history. Not only that, but the partisan antipathy is deeper and more prevalent than it’s been in two decades.

“We’ve always been partisan. We always stuck to our guns at some level,” said Shea, who co-authored the book “Can We Talk?: The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics,” along with Fiorina and other researchers.

“We’ve never been ideologically pure,” he said. “But historically we can agree that the other side, while we might disagree they were viewed as legitimate, are still good Americans and so forth. What that study tells us is that each side really distrusts the other side, that it really doesn’t like them.”

The antipathy has been exacerbated by what Pew described as “ideological silos.”

“Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families,” Pew wrote.

Sixty-three percent of conservatives and 49 percent of liberals in the study said most of their close friends shared their political views. Some Americans said they’d even voice disappointment if a family member married a Democrat or Republican.

The data appeared to support what Shea and Fiorina have described as partisan sorting. It essentially means that people gravitate toward the people, places and things that reinforce their beliefs.

An example: The ramping up of the 2016 presidential race has yielded reports of Facebook’s “unfollow” button, which essentially allows a user to mute friends with divergent political views to create a more homogenized browsing experience.

The feature fits the mold of media outlets like MSNBC and Fox News, which cater to their respective liberal and conservative audiences.

“We’ve narrowed our exposure to contradictory information or information that’s inconsistent with our own beliefs,” Shea said. “It’s narrowing our information through our choices of media. It’s increasingly social media sorting out discordant opinions.”

The result, from Shea’s perspective, is this: “Nobody checks your bombastic, heated rhetoric. Nobody says, ‘Now wait a second. I’m not sure we should say that.’… Everybody says, ‘Right on!'”


The national examples of incivility and the zero-sum game of politics are numerous.

In 2009, federal lawmakers holding town hall meetings in their districts to explain the federal health care law were greeted with raucous protests organized by the tea party. In the U.S. Capitol, some freshmen legislators were hung in effigy and labeled traitors of the Republic.

In Maine, state Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, stepped into controversy when conservative bloggers discovered a tweet in which the legislator wrote that former Vice President Dick Cheney “deserves the same final end that he gave” executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“Hope there are cellcams,” he tweeted.

In March, Republican state Sen. Michael Willette created a national firestorm for a Facebook post that suggested President Obama is family with the terrorist group ISIS, or Islamic State.

Even the fallout from the controversies has produced sharply divergent responses. Willette was cheered in some conservative circles for “saying what everyone was thinking.”

The anti-LePage crowd took to the comments sections of newspaper websites to make similar comments about Emery’s assassination remark.

Emery and Willette were eventually condemned by members of their party. However, the same episodes have also been fanned by partisan operatives. The Maine Democratic Party used the Willette controversy to appeal for donations. Some Maine Republicans have tried to link Emery’s comments to all Democrats even though Democratic leaders swiftly – although not immediately – denounced his remarks.

“I believe that this councilor’s comments are a byproduct of the inflammatory and often hateful rhetoric coming from many sectors of the Democratic Party at their hosted events,” said Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant majority leader in the Senate.

Such reactions are not surprising to political observers. The biggest beneficiaries of heated discourse are partisans, who use conflict to keep their loyalists engaged and motivated. And nothing does that quite like a reliable enemy. LePage has served that purpose for Maine Democrats.

The result is what researchers like Shea call tribalism.

“If you can turn a policy dispute into a constitutional question or a fundamental right, then the other side is an oppressor,” he said.

Chris Lehane, the Democratic strategist famous for his crisis management with President Bill Clinton, frequently describes his operators as “warriors.”

“When you are in a crisis situation, you just go into your warrior mode,” Lehane told The New York Times in a February 2014 profile.

On Oct. 24, the Maine Republican Party sent an email to supporters that encouraged them to vote on Election Day. It did so by referencing the movie “300,” a bloody retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. The Democrats, the letter suggested, had the army of Xerxes, the ruthless king of the Persian empire hellbent on destroying the “free people” of Greece. The Republicans were the 300 Spartans.

“They had us outnumbered and overpowered,” the letter continued. “But we didn’t back down. We prepared for the fight.”

In 480 B.C., the Spartans were annihilated at Thermopylae. Maine Republicans fared much better in 2014, helping re-elect LePage and taking control of the state Senate.


Historians frequently remind us that nasty politics aren’t novel – or new – in the U.S.

In 1806, future President Andrew Jackson shot and killed Charles Dickinson for cheating on a horse race bet. In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks used his cane to beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner unconscious on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

In 1796, Vice President John Adams ran a bitter campaign against Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s supporters described Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adams’ campaign responded that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Some research shows that mean-spirited politicking is cyclical in America. The pre-Civil War era was brutal in its intensity. The 1990s gave rise to the us-versus-them theme perpetrated by Republicans. Newt Gingrich described Democrats as the “enemy of Americans.” In 2008, Sarah Palin updated Gingrich’s characterization with her comments about the “real America,” wherever that is.

Maine has typically resisted that rhetoric.

“Maine is generally less combative and nasty in its discourse,” said Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine. “But we’re getting some of it. It’s part of a national trend. It’s there and developed in the last decade or so.”

Nationally, Palmer said, “Ideology has taken over. I think ideology is better at defining problems and identifying problems and issues than it is at proposing solutions, than actually governing and administering.”

Palmer said Maine’s tradition for individualized politics has often trumped ideology. It’s one of the reasons, he said, that the state has elected two independent governors.

Its most famous politicians have embodied the tradition. Former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe and Edmund Muskie are a few examples.

In 1950, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith resisted the “red scare” politics of fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech stood in sharp contrast to McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt.

“The nation sorely needs a Republican victory,” she said. “But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

Nastiness, of course, subverted Muskie’s political ambitions. After all, it was Richard Nixon’s operatives who wrote the infamous “Canuck letter” that propelled Muskie to the back of a flatbed truck in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1972. There he railed against his antagonist at the Union Leader, publisher William Loeb, who had dubbed the Maine Democrat “Moscow Muskie” and made comments about his wife.

“He’s lied about me and my wife. He’s proved himself to be a gutless coward, a mudslinging, viciously, gutless liar,” Muskie said. “He doesn’t walk, he crawls.”

When it was all over, bumper stickers appeared in Florida that read, “Vote for Muskie or he’ll cry.”


Not everyone agrees that civility and bipartisan cooperation in politics are necessary. If not for some unrest and acrimony, some argue, achievements like the civil rights movement of the 1960s may not have been possible.

“The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation,” wrote Frank Rich, an author and essayist in The New York Times in 2010.

But some wonder what movement the modern incivility trend is pursuing.

Meanwhile, the political parties appear to be undergoing what’s known as ideological purification. For Republicans that’s meant the loss of moderates like Snowe, who exited the stage in 2012 while decrying the hyperpartisanship that had engulfed Washington.

“We must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America,” she said while announcing her retirement in 2012.

So far, few have heeded Snowe’s clarion call for more collaborative governing. Last week, Sen. Roger Katz, a moderate Republican from Augusta, was hammered by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, when he and several other Republicans dared to step out and oppose the governor’s withholding of voter-approved conservation bonds.

Fredette said Katz was “out of touch with Republican principles.”

Palmer isn’t certain that current events signal a fundamental change in Maine politics.

“It’s a little harder for ideology to get rolling here,” he said. “I think towns and politicians are more inclined to work together on problems, not battle over the ideological framework. It’s the old phrase, ‘There’s not a Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.’ You just do it.”

Nonetheless, Shea believes the national trend toward the nasty and uncivil is real and here for the long haul. And there’s partisan interest in keeping it here.

“Operatives have figured out that the way to mobilize – either to get them to the polls or to write their checks – is to raise the rhetoric,” he said. “It’s proven to work. So why would they back off on that?”

In fact, it’s safe to assume that the partisan operatives who exploit, perpetuate and benefit from the resulting political outrage are attempting to determine if their side “won” or “lost” this news story. For the self-described winners, the vainglorious tweet and social media victory lap will commence in 3, 2, 1 …