Maine: The Costs of “Political Speech”

In its article on forced ‘disappearance’ to eliminate political opposition, Wikipedia lists no less than 22 countries where ruling parties have resorted to this practice.  Among the better known are Argentina and Chile, under the regimes of Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981) and Augusto Pinochet (1976-1981), respectively.

As a means of eliminating unwelcome political speech, ‘disappearing’ has the advantage of denying the opposition a locus of protest. One day, someone or some thing is simply no longer there.  Who was it? What was it?  No longer noticing, how long before we forget?

We in Maine have also had a small exposure to the (mercifully bloodless) ‘disappearing’ of political speech.  U.S. District Court Chief Justice John A. Woodcock ruled in Newton v. LePage (March 23, 2012) that a mural in the Maine Department of Labor building depicting the history of Maine’s working people, and summarily ‘disappeared’ by Governor Paul LePage, is political (or government) speech:

“…the parties agree and the Court takes as a given that the labor mural projects a message and that that message is speech.” [p. 65] Thus the resolution of the issue of the governor’s removal  of the mural  “rests not in a court of law but in the court of public opinion.”

If our governor’s political speech were merely “blunt,” as he maintains, we might do no more than roll our eyes and move on.  But the most notorious of his one-liners are striking for their tacit violence.  What’s more, the resort to violence to end–rather than resolve–disputes appears normal among some of his supporters.

According to a manager in a Route 1 convenience store, “we like him because he says what we really think.”  Another supporter writing to the Press Herald advises that a columnist critical of LePage would have been “seen … as a smart aleck twit and I think he’d have frequently gotten beat up at school.  And he’d have deserved it.” [Charles Todorich, PPH, July 21, 2012].

The true cost of our governor’s preferred political speech is not the heartburn it surely gives to the Prius and Birkenstock set.  It is that it peremptorily forecloses meaningful and creative efforts to resolve policy disputes with the largest number of our citizens possible.

In business school they call it negotiating a “win-win” solution to a conflict of interests.  In public administration they call it getting “buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible.”  The most important reason to work for consensus is not so we can all feel good about ourselves.  It is so that whatever resolution is ultimately achieved will endure.  Otherwise enough people able to undermine a policy will always be waiting for the chance to do so.  Achieving a “win-win” solution is ‘realpolitik’ at its finest.

For example, Maine has before it two important opportunities to improve and modernize its infrastructure, opportunities critical to our long-term economic vitality.  These are an east-west highway across the state, and universal access to broadband Internet, now possible thanks to the completion of Maine’s first high-speed fiber-optic telecommunications network.

The weight of historical evidence shows that robust transportation and communications networks have been essential to this country’s economic prosperity and political cohesion.  A map of railroad routes built across the U.S. in the 1860’s, routes which headed west, rather than south, reveals a chief reason the southern states failed to benefit from an emerging vigorous national economy and evolved an insular culture and politics that persist in its rural areas to this day.

An east-west highway across Maine would do much to relieve the rural isolation–attractive to some, impoverishing to many–of its northern and western counties.  Some creative mediation by a responsible state government would ensure that the right questions are asked and answered, and the legitimate concerns of the opposition accommodated.

Similarly, Press Herald columnist Charles Lawton has recently written of the challenge facing those who support the extension of broadband throughout Maine.  Too few Mainers appreciate what a computer and broadband Internet access can contribute to their lives (for example, telemedicine), and too few Maine businesses recognize the need today for an active on-line presence to survive–much less grow.  The failure of Maine’s businesses to exploit this essential component of our commercial infrastructure begs for constructive state government involvement, including financial incentives.

But these opportunities–and others of comparable importance–are likely to be lost with this governor, fallen prey to the unfortunate tenor of his political speech.

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