American politics is getting much rougher. Ideological talk radio, blogs sites, partisan television news and pundit programs are thriving. They have found that smaller audiences can be profitable as long as they are loyal. No problem: Hurl red meat, promote an us vs. them mindset, and spin every issue as a crisis.

If you get your news via Facebook from friends with similar ideology to yours, or from the same website day-after-day, you might be part of the problem. Each morning, suggests one scholar, we open the “daily me.” We barricade out other opinions and intensify our own beliefs. Safe in the echo chamber, we allow the other side to become irrational and dangerous.

Cultural changes, like mean-spirited reality television programs and social media, could be part of the problem, too. The highpoint of the reality show is when the fight breaks out. Hitting the send button on a nasty anonymous comment has become remarkably easy.

Some scholars are even starting to notice a growing inclination for Americans to locate in neighborhoods and towns consistent with their ideology. “Self-sorting” further limits access to conflicting points-of-view, intensifies opinions and makes vitriol seem ordinary.

The outcome throughout the nation has been hyper-partisanship and, in turn, increasingly nasty politics. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found, for example, that more than 50 percent of Americans think the other side’s policies are a threat to the nation. Those with consistently liberal or conservative beliefs have doubled in the last decade, and one-half of these folks want to live in communities that share their politics. One-third of hard-core conservatives and 23 percent of hard-core liberals would be upset if someone in their family married a person from the other ideology.

Is that happening here in Maine? We will dig into this issue with a panel discussion at 7 tonight at Colby College. All are welcome to the event, which is cosponsored by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby and the Maine Council of Churches.


We do know that Maine historically has been a centrist, pragmatic state. We pay close attention to and care about politics, and we understand that the best route could exist somewhere in the middle. We’ll sometimes ditch party labels to support independent thinkers, and our Legislature has a long history of collaboration and congeniality (setting aside the last few years).

We’re also up here alone, at the end of the road, so to speak. We welcome visitors, but also know they’ll depart, leaving us to those brilliant, but long winter months and muddy springs. No one cares about a neighbor’s politics when the power lines are down and the cord wood is running low.

Fundamentally, Maine really is a small town, with less than seven degrees of separation between each of us. I was told this bit of wisdom when we moved here (yup, from away) and have been stunned by its precision ever since.

The connections and the intimacy can be shocking. Last winter, my brother came for visit and wanted to go to L.L. Bean (imagine that). The store was busy and he had to wait in line for about 20 minutes. When I caught up with him, he said the delay was fine because he got to chat to this nice, smart guy. “That guy, over there,” he pointed. It was Angus King, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a big smile.

So if we are headed in a nasty direction, maybe we can hit the brakes. As the 2014 election heats up, why not appreciate the value and legitimacy of the other side? We can be proud partisans, but also open-minded and pragmatic. That is, let’s be Mainers.

Perhaps we also can ask the candidates — our friends and neighbors — to push their ideas and offer clear, in-depth solutions. But please, check the insults and personal attacks at the door. Feel free to tell us where you disagree with your opponent, but don’t question his or her integrity or patriotism.

After all, when the election is over — when the all the leaves are down, the wood is stacked and the skim-ice begins to form — it will be us, in our small town, with a common goal: maintaining the integrity of this place we all call home.

Daniel M. Shea is the director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby and author 15 books and many articles on American politics.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.