The Occupy encampments in Maine lasted a little over four months, with the last vestiges of Portland’s Lincoln Park occupation removed two weeks ago. But Occupy’s message continues to resonate. In concert with fellow occupiers across the country, Maine’s Occupy movement is helping engineer a seismic change in our political consciousness.
Before Occupy, it was easy to dismiss those who criticized America’s radically unequal distribution of wealth as advocating “class warfare,” and, strangely enough, being “elitist,” or – favorite all-purpose adjective, “socialist.”
Now, people across the political spectrum are beginning to understand that what we’ve been told for so long – middle class wage-earners must give up pay and benefits, federal programs like Social Security are “out of control, ” unions are villains and CEOs are heroic – is a bunch of hooey.
This is still a very rich and powerful nation. What has changed is the willingness of those with extraordinary privilege to share burdens, to acknowledge our common humanity, to behave as if we’re all in this together. Occupy put a human face on the problem, and our collective thinking will not return to where it was.
As easily seen in the presidential race, the Republican Party is in trouble, and its troubles will become worse, not better. The GOP had a choice to make following its rebuke by the voters in 2006 and 2008, the last putting the presidency and Congress in Democratic hands.
It could have figured out how to appeal to the moderates and independents who had deserted the GOP. Or it could appeal to its base by moving farther right. It chose the latter.
At first, it seemed to be working. Republicans won governor’s races in 2009, and took back the U.S. House of Representatives the following year. In Maine, they swept the Legislature and gubernatorial contests. But governing has not gone well.
A warning shot was the Feb. 14 state Senate election that, astonishingly, elected Democrat Chris Johnson over Republican Dana Dow in Lincoln County — GOP turf. To understand the magnitude of the shift, consider that Johnson ran for the same seat 15 months earlier and received less than a third of the vote against Republican David Trahan and an independent.
Republicans tried hard to avoid this result. Trahan, who was hired as director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, resigned only from his committee assignment last fall. This avoided a November special election that would have occurred the same day voters rejected the GOP’s effort to end Election Day registration. And the Valentine’s Day date seemed designed to lower turnout. It didn’t work. Johnson beat Dow – who’d held the seat for two terms – convincingly.
The win brightens Democratic prospects for the fall, but there’s a problem. As an opposition party, Democrats in Augusta have been thoroughly inept, and are doing little to retool their message.
Exhibit A is the tax-cut package where, with almost no public discussion, Democrats joined Republicans in approving last June. The cuts in the top income tax rate, and particularly a big Estate Tax exemption, shower thousands of dollars on wealthy taxpayers while giving pennies to working Mainers.
The tax cuts will cost $170 million in the current budget, and a staggering $530 million in the next one. Not coincidentally, we’re told there’s suddenly no money for MaineCare, or Head Start, or prescription drug assistance, and that “structural reforms” – that is, removing health benefits from the poor and near-poor – are the only answer.
It’s one thing for Republicans to be making this argument, and a highly unpopular argument it’s turning out to be. It’s another thing when Democrats go along without a protest.
Nobody campaigns while saying, “I want to raise your taxes,” which obviously doesn’t work. But candidates can say, “We have to raise the money we need to provide health care, pave the roads, and keep teachers in the classroom.” I suspect Mainers are ready to hear that message.
President Obama, after hitting bottom last summer, has shown how to craft a winning message about taxes. Huge majorities now support ending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
But what about Maine? Democrats may still win in November without a coherent message. Voter distaste for the Republican program is that intense. But if they hope to get anything done, to shift gravity away from our present dilemma — aptly described as private extravagance and public squalor – and restore balance to the social contract, they’d better get busy now.