By Tom Lamia
Maine is two worlds. The inhabitants of each differ in many ways, but in no way more threatening to peaceful coexistence than the resentment bred in one group by the perceived exercise of privilege by the other group. The people of these separate worlds each share a desire for material rewards and each seeks recognition and respect for who they are and where they come from; but a very long history of different ways of work and reward have put them at odds for generations, and now leads them to an impasse over their politics and their willingness to continue to accept the terms of their differing self-regard.
At this time of year, every year regardless of pandemic conditions, the state highway running past my front door and continuing to the harbor of my town of South Bristol (pop. 871) accommodates a regular traffic of trucks pulling boats on trailers. These are boats being brought to the open water from winter storage or distant manufacture. The size and type of the trailered boat is a reasonable indicator of the use to which it will be put and to the place of the user on the economic ladder. Purely anecdotally, my assessment of these uses as observed over the last thirty or forty years, is a clear line from primarily commercial fishing to primarily ocean sport and leisure. During this time the waterfront structures in South Bristol have morphed from local residences of those who either fish or provide services to those who fish, to upscale housing for summer residents and retirees seeking a quiet and comfortable year-round life in Maine (like me).
This year the boats passing before me appear to be bigger and tend more to the pleasure craft end of the boating spectrum than in years past. Lobstering and clamming continue to be major contributors to the local economy both in South Bristol and along the entire coast of Maine. Aquaculture of various types (oysters, salmon, mussels, kelp) employs many who have access to the seacoast. All of this activity is a bright spot for confidence in Maine’s economic future. One caveat, however, is that these upgrades to ocean production come with technology demands that require more education and training than is needed in the traditional family apprenticeship system, the historical entry point for commercial fishing in Maine.
Maine issues periodic reports on economic conditions in the State. For analytical purposes these reports divide Maine into three geographical regions: Coastal, Central and Rim. The Coastal region includes seven of Maine’s sixteen counties. All are arrayed along Maine’s coastline and include all but the northernmost coastal county (Washington). The Rim region covers five counties bordering Canada and a sixth interior county (Piscataquis) geographically large but sparsely populated. The Central region includes Maine’s three interior counties having significant cities: Androscoggin (Auburn/Lewiston), Kennebec (Augusta, the State Capital) and Penobscot (Bangor).
In 1900 these three regions had comparable populations; 200,000 each for the Rim and Central regions, and 300,000 for the Coastal region. Today the approximate populations are 700,000 (Coastal) 390,000 (Central) and 265,000 (Rim). The story these numbers tell is that the Coastal and Central regions have kept pace with technological and economic progress, while the Rim region is burdened by being rural and remote.
Maine’s First Congressional District is, roughly, the southwestern end of the Coastal region, plus most of Kennebec County, with a population near 680,000. The Second District is everything else, population 660,000 or so. Both districts are overwhelmingly white; the Second District marginally more so (95.5% vs. 94.2%). Annual personal income differences are more distinguishing; $67,000 vs. $40,500. Both districts have had elected representatives from each party in the past, but not since the mid-90s has a Republican been elected in the First District. The Second District elected a Republican in 2014 and 2016, but has voted more often in the recent past for conservative Democrats.
Apart from the party label of the winning candidates, what characterizes the politics of these coastal and interior areas of Maine is culture. The interior is Old Maine (game hunting and fishing, lumber production). The coast (Portland, Freeport, Brunswick, Rockland, Camden and the coastal islands) is growing rapidly with retirees seeking ocean view homes and access to the creative arts and fine restaurants that have emerged with the new arrivals. These changes have exacerbated historical cultural differences with the interior. Young urban adventurers have discovered Portland and its high quality food and drink venues. In Brunswick there is Bowdoin College; in Freeport L.L. Bean.
Of what consequence is all of this?
In their efforts to penetrate the logic and direction of the weakening of democracy, academics and pundits have spoken of the effects of culture, of race, of immigration, of creeping authoritarianism to explain Trumpism. For me, the net effect of all the debate is a standoff. Using Maine as a microcosm, my theory is that voters have stopped listening to rationalizations and are going with their gut. In the Rim counties, their gut tells them that they have been unfairly left behind, punked by a privileged pseudo-elite. In the Coastal counties, their gut tells them that good schools, technology and merit have been their steppingstones to the good life.
Resentment lies deep within those passed over by technology and urban-centric advantage. A gap that started small twenty years ago now yawns as insurmountable. They have a common belief that their disadvantages arose through no fault of their own and it is futile to fight against a tide that has swept in and sucked them out to sea.
In Maine’s Rim region, annual household income is $43,000; in the Coastal region it is $59,000. In the Rim, 11% have four-year college degrees, 7% have graduate or professional degrees. In the Coastal region 21% have 4-year degrees and 13% have graduate or professional degrees. The Central region, where industry, and government are the principal activities, the income and education levels lie between those of the Coastal and Rim regions.
Trump got 57% of the Rim vote and 41% of the Coastal. Biden took just 40% of the Rim vote and 57% of the Coastal. These are two sides of a wobbly coin—not a healthy climate for cooperation and goodwill. In 2020, Jared Golden, the Democrat elected in the Second Congressional District in 2018 was the sole Democrat to vote against one of two counts in Trump’s first impeachment. After his re-election in November 2020, Golden may have redeemed his Democrat credentials some, by voting solidly for Trump’s second impeachment in January 2021. That first vote is indicative of Golden’s need to insulate himself against Trump’s popularity in Golden’s district, where Trump’s point margins in 2016 (10+) and 2020 (8) were solid.