By Tom Lamia
From early January to mid-April of this year, I was in New York having a knee repaired. My surgery was on January 20th, the day that politics and governance took a new direction. Every day since has brought something new for discussion, with no one sure where it is all headed. Your choice of news source likely determines what you hear and what you think. All sides seem to agree on one thing: The new president tapped a populist revolt among working class rural whites. That category covers most of my Maine neighbors. As I lay immobile on Horatio Street, I thought about the prospect of an urban elitist like me finding acceptance in South Bristol, where guns are everyday tools and pompous elitists are not welcome.
After ruminating on this, I concluded that all of us within the American Republic are safe, at least until some further political catastrophe occurs.
Our form of government arose in rebellion against a king. It has multiple layers of protection against autocrats and tyrants because such protection was critically important to those who wrote our Constitution. Constitutional principles, including the separation of powers, have kept the country together for 228 years, from our agricultural roots to our urban industrial present. These principles have been tested many times and they will see us through. But that is not our only protective umbrella.
Powers not given to the federal government are reserved for the states. But state governments are not all cut from the same cloth. Have they the power to restrain federal ambitions? To keep their way of life intact when economic and political times change? I believe so. The Constitution gives the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce, for example, but the police power is reserved for the states. Already this power is being used to protect state interests in “sanctuary cities.” State and local governments will use their reserved powers to fiercely defend local interests thought to be in peril.
The Civil War was fought over an issue that the U.S. Constitution had finessed, not because slavery was overlooked, but because no political solution to it could be found in 1789. The moral dilemma resulted in war and a bitter national division that continues today. This lesson is not likely to be forgotten. Economic issues often divide state and national interests and are hotly contested. The State of Maine must find common ground on trade (of lumber, lobsters, cod). The City of New York has been challenged in its basic industries (e.g., finance, publishing, the arts) by parts of the country whose cultural values differ. We have gotten through these differences.
The recent election may suggest that the world is going to Hell, with all of us sharing the ride. But do not abandon hope. The country has President Donald Trump; Maine has Governor Paul LePage. These men are more alike than different and not in ways that I admire or approve. I voted for neither, but I see in each the qualities that appealed to the voters who put them in office. The critical question is whether our constitutional system is strong enough to help them govern while protecting us from their governance.
In the last year, I read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. They give me some confidence that we can keep our heads as all about us are losing theirs. Piketty, if I can synthesize, provides the income and wealth data for most of the western world since the 17th century. It shows a massive shift in the nature of dominant wealth (from agricultural to industrial) and the income distribution associated with it. Inequality of wealth and income has persisted throughout the 250 or so years covered by the data, excepting periods of war, in which wealth (capital) was destroyed. The loss of capital decreased incomes, resulting in greater equality. As war has ceased to be a practical device for income redistribution in the nuclear age, political resistance in the Bernie Sanders model must now serve to restrain a growing inequality.
Point One: Our constitutional system and democratic traditions provide a political tool to deal with economic inequality. We need only get out and vote.
Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton describes the extraordinary impact of a single, exceptional individual on our country. Hamilton was a man of such intelligence, energy, ambition, and self-confidence that he was both feared and admired by political opponents. If not the principal author of the Constitution, he was the principal force in explaining and selling it to the states whose approval was necessary for its promulgation.
Point Two: A few among us possess the qualities to carry us through to political salvation. We need only get out and vote.
These high-minded thoughts have practical local application even in rural and coastal Maine. Next month: Maine’s contribution to good government—from Frances Perkins to Angus King, with due credit given to Ed Muskie, George Mitchell, Margaret Chase Smith, William Cohen, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins.