Muskie School of Public Service

Politics Then and Now, In Maine and the Nation

Conversations with the Sages

Edited by Richard Barringer and Kenneth Palmer

Cover of Politics Then and Now PublicationExplores the recent, dramatic changes in U.S. politics, in the nation's capital and in Maine. A politics once marked by compromise and coalition-building has turned into party polarization and legislative gridlock. Twelve political veterans discuss the roots of the problem and its consequences, and cite possible remedies.

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1. Introduction and Lessons Learned

Kenneth PalmerRichard BarringerThe introduction sets the scene and draws lessons gained from the conversations. Among others, increased social distance among members of Congress, the dominant role money plays in today’s campaigns, and gerrymandered congressional districts enhance political dysfunction. These trends are less dominant in Maine. Introduction authored by Richard Barringer (left) and Kenneth Palmer (right).

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2. Tom Allen - "Worldviews in Conflict"

Tom Allen

Former Congressman Tom Allen describes the gridlock as a deep conflict between basic worldviews, expressed in the values of “individualism” and “community.” An effective balance between the two that long prevailed has been lost today, and may be restored only by genuine and continuing dialogue.

• Download the chapter  |  Listen   |  • Brief biography


3. George Mitchell - "The Importance of Listening"

George Mitchell

Senator George Mitchell recounts the rapport he and Senator Bob Dole enjoyed when they led their respective parties in the U.S. Senate. Mitchell argues that listening is the essence of statesmanship, and that money-chasing today impedes the work of Congress and erodes the public trust.

• Download the chapter  |  Listen  |  • Brief biography


4. Angus King - "Ten Comparisons, Then & Now"

Angus KingSenator Angus King cites the disappearance of a political center in the U.S. Senate as the root cause of dysfunction. He notes that Senate rules and traditions are ill-suited to accommodate polarized parties, and is amazed at the rise of legislators whose goal is to dismantle the government.

• Download the chapter  |  Listen  |  • Brief biography


5. Barney Frank - "It's not the System, It's the Voters"

Barney FrankFormer Congressman Barney Frank argues the dysfunction is of recent origin, dating only to 2010. In the end he faults the voters, especially moderate voters, for failing to participate actively and to help define a needed and effective line between private and public sector responsibility and activity.

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6. Kenneth Curtis - "Governing for the People"

Kenneth Curtis

Former Governor Kenneth Curtis explains that his political career grew from a drive to provide opportunity for Maine people, especially youth. He discusses the extraordinary and long-lasting achievements of his administration, and points out that all were products of bi-partisan cooperation and compromise.

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7. Elizabeth Mitchell - "Productive Partnership"

Elizabeth Mitchell

Former House Speaker and Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell discusses the enduring importance of personal relationships in Maine politics, in both campaigning and lawmaking. She argues that political leadership is above all about consensus-building, and that “principled partisanship” is essential to successful lawmaking.

• Download the chapter  |  Listen  |  • Brief biography


8. Peter Mills - "Teach Your Children Well"

Peter Mills

Veteran legislator Peter Mills describes lawmaking as among the best experiences of his life, recommended to all. He praises the distinctive Maine political culture, decries the growing plutocracy and congressional gridlock, and identifies campaign spending and the mounting national debt as critical issues to be addressed.

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9. Closing Panel - "Looking Forward"
Amy Fried, Kenneth Fredette, and Cynthia Dill

Maine shows some positive signs to Prof. Amy Fried, including a civil, centrist politics. Rep. Ken Fredette cites the abiding importance of personal relationships and the state budget. Sen. Cynthia Dill argues the U.S. is moving toward plutocracy, but Maine may resist if more youthful voices are heard.

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Amy Fried

Amy Fried

Kenneth Fredette

Kenneth Fredette

Cynthia Dill

Cynthia Dill


10. Special Supplemental - "Enough is Enough!"
William Cohen and Alan Simpson

Secretary William Cohen decries the role of money in politics and warns against the debt now imposed on future generations. Senator Alan Simpson abhors the loss of trust and civility in the Congress, and declares that disagreement and disaffection within the parties are as deep as those between the parties.

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William Cohen

William Cohen

Alan Simpson

Alan Simpson


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Publication illustrations by:
 Steve Hrehovcik