We’ve seen a fairly tumultuous legislative session this year in Augusta. It has featured not only an epic budget fight – which, by the time you read this, has possibly resulted in a shutdown of state government – but also a concerted effort by both parties to repeal or significantly modify the citizens’ initiatives passed last fall.

The problem with these fights is just that legislators are engaging in the kind of endless partisan bickering that has paralyzed Washington, D.C., and led to many Americans to detest all politics, weakening faith in our democratic system.

Legislators seem to think that they can get away with repealing or changing citizens’ initiatives if they act in a bipartisan way, and that anger over the budget and the shutdown will help their party at the expense of the other. Unfortunately, as Doc Brown would say to Marty McFly, they’re failing to think three-dimensionally. They’re failing to recognize that they face a new threat that might completely upend the traditional two-party system: a rising populist anger with champions on both the left and the right.

Nationally, that populism has been represented by Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Here in Maine, it might lead to quite a different result: a rising coalition of moderates that takes the best ideas from both sides and forces people to compromise. You might have thought that the effort to recruit independents to run for the Legislature would have been dealt a death blow by the likely repeal of ranked-choice voting, but the budget fight – and the Legislature fiddling with referendums – might have significantly strengthened their hand.

With the referendums, it’s pretty clear that many in both parties were not interested in working in a good-faith way to implement them. Instead, they did their very best to undermine, weaken or repeal them.

Regardless of whether you supported the referendums or not (many were poorly written, ill-conceived ideas that deserved to be defeated, to be sure), there’s no denying that legislative efforts to revise them were virtually unprecedented. Though many of these citizens’ initiatives did pass narrowly, they were voted in by the people statewide, and many people who supported these initiatives might feel as though they can no longer trust anyone in either party.

That’s certainly understandable, and not unexpected. A few minor tweaks to the referendums would have been understandable, but the changes that have been made – no matter how well-intentioned – have completely undermined them, and probably should have been referred back to the people for a vote.

With so many different citizens’ initiatives facing wholesale changes, that presents opportunities to challengers in many different legislative districts. Regardless of your local legislator’s party, they might face a challenger from the right or the left who opposes their attempt to undermine ranked-choice voting, the minimum-wage increase or the education spending referendum. That could create quite an interesting dynamic in some districts, especially if the challenger were an independent who could take up several of these causes without losing a primary.

On the budget, these sorts of scorched-earth debates tend to cause a “pox-on-both-your-houses” reaction in many voters, whether they result in a shutdown or not. With only two choices, that can cause depressed turnout and hand a victory to whomever’s base is the most excited. However, in other Western democracies, this sort of event has caused the rise of third parties, often populist, whether coming from the left, the right or neither.

In France, for example, the complete and utter failure of both major parties to address their failures of partisanship, paternalism and corruption led to the rise of a centrist third party. Their candidate, Emmanuel Macron, was easily swept to the presidency and his brand-new party won a huge majority in the subsequent legislative elections. This result completely dismantled the traditional two-party system in France, embarrassing the well-established left-wing and right-wing parties in the country.

We are unlikely to see such a dramatic upending in Maine in the next election cycle, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. What’s more likely, however, is that voters will switch gears and elect a moderate or independent governor, with a significant number of like-minded legislators. That would lead to a major re-calibration of the balance of power in Augusta. That might be a good thing for Maine, but it wouldn’t be a good thing for anyone currently in leadership in either party.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. 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.

filed under: