Idealists intent on perfecting American democracy can celebrate a resounding victory this month. Maine passed Question 1, a referendum renovating our state’s clean election legislation.

Theirs was a convincing victory, with a 55 percent margin, but it was not an easy victory. The idealists needed to spend an estimated $2 million in order to overcome the vicious $50,000 propaganda blitz launched by Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians. There’s a rumor going around that the notorious Koch brothers donated $1.50 to MAWP, and the Maine Peoples Alliance communications director, Mike Tipping, is said to be hot on the trail of that incriminating buck-fifty. So far, however, it appears that all the MAWP money came from Mainers.

For my own part, I have mixed feelings about the Question 1 outcome. On the one hand, I share Gov. Paul LePage’s distaste for this budget-bleeding project. On the other hand, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself for helping to divert a huge chunk of progressive-money-from-away into what seems like a pointless project.

Yes, I do mean pointless. I’ve talked this over with Charlie Webster, a man with vast experience and some notable successes in Maine politics. Neither of us could see what the progressives have gained by their “victory.”

The idea that the left-lurchers spent a couple of million dollars with the ostensible purpose of reducing the influence of big money is not merely comical. It seems futile as well. It will have no effect on the total cash flow into Maine politics. Charlie speculates that it might support a few campaigns by eager young advocates, activists and idealists who have never found a productive job, but that’s all.

Matt Gagnon, head of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, points out that it practically forces underfunded Republican candidates to run with public funding.

As a board member of Maine Taxpayers United, I naturally opposed yet another pointless leeching off the taxpayers. As a heartless, reactionary misanthrope, I naturally favor dirty elections.

Not least of all, I have an instinctive hostility to the groups backing the Maine Clean Election Act: AARP Maine, Common Cause Maine, EqualityMaine, League of Women Voters of Maine, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Council of Churches, Maine People’s Alliance/Maine People’s Resource Center, NAACP-Portland, Maine State Employees Association/SEIU Local 1989, Maine Women’s Lobby and Sierra Club Maine Chapter are all legally “non-partisan” for tax-evasion purposes, but they are all instruments of the Maine Democratic Party.

Readers who think this instinctive hostility is analogous to a Red Sock fan’s hostility to the Yankees and all things Yankee would not be completely, entirely, 100 percent wrong. Politically committed citizens are loathe to admit it, but a lot of sports-fan feelings are mixed in with their high-minded civic principles.

Some Republicans see only calculations of political advantage behind the clean elections project. A few see only a mercenary motive, i.e., they see all that public funding ending up in the pockets of the hacks who run campaigns.

Without totally dismissing those considerations, I always assume mixed motives for every political project. I further assume that everyone except actual sociopaths has some elements of idealism mixed in with self-interest and the lust for power. So I’m certain the clean election supporters see themselves as champions of democracy. Here we must stop and reflect on this axiom: “True Democracy is when our side wins.”

This rule governs debates about electoral contests among all true believers in democracy. I’ve researched this question for five decades and I’ve discovered no exceptions. No true believer, it appears, is able to accept his party’s defeat as an authentic expression of the people’s will. The “our side” in this axiom is any side — Republican, Democratic, Green, Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, Nudist, Vegetarian. It’s universally applicable. If you believe in democracy, really believe in democracy, you can’t possibly believe that your political adversary’s electoral victory can be legitimately democratic.

American democracy is “a work in progress.” The work goes on and on, but I expect little or no progress beyond the point we have already reached. Question 1 supporters may hope that November’s victory presages a national clean election sweep.

For next year’s referendum, we are promised that, “With ranked-choice voting, we have an opportunity to bring an end to the culture of partisan hacks, demonization of opponents and purely negative campaigning,” among many other marvels. There will be other equally futile projects.

Why has no one figured out that we can’t seriously improve American democracy without improving America’s voters? Fiddling with the process can’t do it.

John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of Email to [email protected].

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