Tip O’Neill is still famous for his mantra, “All politics is local.” The Massachusetts representative who served as U.S. House speaker from 1976-86 was perhaps the last of the old-time Irish “pols” who once inhabited the legendary “smoke-filled rooms” where all political decisions were supposedly made.

As a young editorial writer, what I heard O’Neill saying was “All politics is parochial” — meaning it was hard to interest voters in any of the big ideas I was then trying to write about, from national health care to the reflexive appetite for more military spending, no questions asked.

I dismissed O’Neill’s notion, since it had just been spectacularly disproven by Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980. Reagan was among our first celebrity politicians, viewed by detractors as a “B-movie actor” but embraced by American voters.

O’Neill’s local politics was no match for the Reagan juggernaut, and he gave his Democratic House caucus the green light to vote for mammoth tax cuts at a time when the speaker could have blocked them — a fateful decision that led to the chronic peacetime deficits. and to the de-funding of national and state governments we know so well today.

The latest celebrity politician is Donald Trump, a caricature even of the “B-movie actor.” The news media is absorbed by Trump’s every move, as witnessed by the on-again, off-again, on-again summit with North Korea, buttressed by seemingly irrational trade decisions, that dominates every news cycle.

What Trump hasn’t noticed is that he’s already given North Korea’s leader a priceless propaganda advantage that no other president would have considered: equal stature on the world stage. That this may be an oxymoronic “meet-and-greet summit” doesn’t matter to the Oval Office’s current occupant.

This too shall pass. When Donald Trump departs, we may want to consider another interpretation of Tip O’Neill’s classic observation.

After more election cycles than I care to count, I now read “All politics is local” quite differently, as “All politics begins at the local level.” Certainly all good politics does.

The phenomenon of family Thanksgivings disrupted by heated arguments after the 2016 election provides a clue. As long as we retreat to the blogosphere, lobbing tweets at imagined enemies and malefactors — and each other — our political life goes nowhere.

When we begin talking with each other, in person, one on one and in groups, there’s some hope: All politics truly is local.

Fortunately, there’s some good news. Before I joined the current campaign for governor, I had never been to a local Democratic Party gathering. Now I’ve been to dozens.

Beginning with the March caucuses, and everywhere since, organizers say they’re seeing anywhere from two to four times the number of participants they expected. At the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, the main floor, hallways and balconies were packed with Democrats taking the measure of seven candidates — the highest number ever on a Democratic gubernatorial ballot.

The latest such local event was in China, where five candidates and more than 35 Democrats gathered at the South China Community Church, listening attentively for more than two hours. The China Democratic Committee had existed mainly on paper until the recent state convention, but has since grown rapidly.

What’s significant is that China is one of Kennebec County’s “Republican towns,” where Democrats are supposed to run and lose, as they do throughout rural Maine. Even more significant were speeches by two Democrats seeking election to the state Senate — both from China — in what we’ve known as the “Augusta seat,” currently held by the term-limited Republican Roger Katz, like his father before him, Bennett Katz, who was a Republican majority leader before term limits existed.

China’s population is estimated at 4,328, while Augusta’s is 19,136. But Augusta’s Democratic Committee appears moribund, while China’s is on the rise.

At one time, political parties offered social opportunities as well as the chance to back candidates and win elections. Crucially, they offered places to talk about tough issues and resolve controversies in person, where conversations must occur and relationships matter.

I saw a heated debate in Lewiston about the Bath Iron Works tax break, with the debaters still walking out as friends. I saw candidates, and audiences, grappling with the opioid epidemic and the college debt crisis and coming up with pragmatic answers, not just slogans.

The real work of politics begins around dinner tables and in supermarket checkout lines, yes, but it can also begin in local organizations where people learn to recognize their differences, in ideas, identities and persuasions, but also find common ground.

May this be the year we recover that basic truth.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine.” He lives in West Gardiner, and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.