With political campaigns once again spewing anger and accusation here in Maine and across the nation, one thing stands out clearly: We have murdered the rational and given its place to the rationale. Instead of thinking things through, doing the hard work of seeking accommodation and the best solution available, we build egocentric, I’m-right-you’re-wrong rationales.

“The current zero-sum, destructive thought process has helped to bring us to the paralytic state of both the nation’s body politic and, increasingly, its people,” Norman Abelson writes. zimmytws/Shutterstock.com

We demand the perfect, rejecting the good, thus sacrificing the best that is available. We rationalize that the perfect is better than the good, and the only way to go. Though that may be true, it means we end up with nothing. This attitude has helped move us from disagreement to bitterness to perhaps unfixable separation. It turns the very basis of a working democracy – serious discussion and reasonable compromise – on its head.

We rationalize that anyone who disagrees with us on one or two issues must therefore be wrong about everything else, ergo, there is no purpose in any discussion or interaction. A moment of rational thought would make clear that few, if any, people agree on everything, so there nearly always is some basis to sit down and discuss agreements at first, and then listen to and discuss – calmly – each other’s opposing views. It is not necessary to come to total agreement; it is necessary to respect the right to disagree. And, perish the thought, it’s possible that some of our views may be wrong, or at least open to argument.

I have some good memories of the way things, while imperfect, once were.

In the 1960s I worked as press secretary to a Democratic U.S. senator. During his first year, well over 80% of the bills he put his name to were cosponsored by Republicans. He had a warm personal relationship with his conservative Republican fellow New Hampshire senator. They often met to discuss legislation, especially that which had an impact on our state. Their floor speeches on issues upon which they disagreed were polite and well reasoned, as were those of other colleagues. No yelling. No name-calling. Maine folks were proud of such fine leaders as Margret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie and Olympia Snowe.

As for me, some of my best Washington friends worked for Republican lawmakers. Sharing a few drinks together after work? Friday night poker games with ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater staffers? No problem. We didn’t always come to agreement, but getting to know these folks on a personal level made it easier – and more reasonable – to talk out differences. And to get things done.


Are there some whose views are so distorted and prejudiced that discussion is useless? Of course. But I believe they are still in the minority, and they should not have the power to deter the rest of us from seeking to make this nation a safer and saner place.

Here in Maine, thankfully, there remain remain some folks who do not subscribe to the worst in current political thought. A couple of good examples appeared in a recent Press Herald story about the town of Oxford.

One woman said she was tired of all the divisiveness, adding, “I don’t want to hate Janet Mills and I don’t want to hate Paul LePage. I just want to feel like whoever is in there is trying to do the right by everyone.” Another woman told the Press Herald, “We want to be open to all people. People are so divided right now, there aren’t a lot of spaces that really welcome everyone.” They’re both right on.

One thing is clear: The current zero-sum, destructive thought process has helped to bring us to the paralytic state of both the nation’s body politic and, increasingly, its people. Continuing on this self-destructive course imperils this democracy.

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