Senator Susan Collins critiques partisanship at Mitchell Lecture

Politics “is the art of compromise… [but] that maxim is woefully out of fashion today,” Senator Susan Collins (R–ME) said on April 9th to the overflowing crowd at Colby’s ninth annual Senator George J. Mitchell Distinguished Lecture Series. Spearheaded by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement and sustained by contributions from the Mitchell family and friends of the senator, the Lecture Series has hosted numerous distinguished policy leaders, including former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and former Senator Tom Daschle. Collins’ lecture, “Why Moderation and Bipartisanship lead to Progress,” focused on explaining the causes of Washington’s gridlock and how to improve it.

The lecture started with Director of Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civil Engagement Dan Shea introducing the esteemed senator and Waterville native, George J. Mitchell. Despite being a Bowdoin alumnus, Mitchell maintains a deep connection to Colby, as he worked his way through college by spending summers at Colby, even building “the beautiful terraced lawn” in front of Foss. He then introduced Collins, whom he described as “a proud Aroostook County woman,” who embodies the moderation and compromise that “is sorely needed in this country.”

Collins began her speech by quantifying how pervasive “hyperpartisanship and incivility” is in Washington and across the nation. Collins described a recent study by CQ Weekly, which determined that during Mitchell’s tenure as the Senate Majority Leader (1989-1995), the percent of party unity votes—where representatives vote on party lines—was around 50 percent. This year, they were at 67 percent, down from 70 percent two years ago. Collins elaborated that both parties were to blame. Last year, she explained, all but three Republicans voted with their party 87 percent of the time—the three being Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Collins herself. Democrats didn’t fare much better, with 11 Democratic senators voting with their party 100 percent of the time. She surmised, “The world’s greatest deliberative body didn’t do much deliberating last year.”

Collins focused on four key reasons hyperpartisanship has become rampant. First, she blamed the “general lowering of the level of discourse as the media and [anonymous websites] have become the preferred place for debate.” However, she elaborated that, in these settings debate often devolves into ad hominem attacks. Second, she blamed the media that utilizes “highly partisan” listeners to boost their ratings. This leads to giving voices to inflammatory commentators in place of moderates. Third, politicians today “live in a time of never ending campaign cycles.” This leads to less compromise as politicians try to maintain their seats. For her final reason, Collins projected several weaving, rorshach-type shapes on the screen. She identified these as Illinois’s 4th Congressional District and Florida’s 5th District, explaining how gerrymandering is designed to create overwhelming party support in a district, effectively silencing moderates.

Faced with these hurdles, Collins made a plea to the audience to help change the culture in Washington. “Washington is unlikely to change unless people outside of it ask for change,” she said. Collins likewise expressed a belief that both parties need to work together in order to govern properly. She reminded the audience, “neither party has a monopoly on good ideas.”

Collin’s speech concluded with a standing ovation and an audience question period that quizzed the Senator on everything from her stance on global warming to the role Maine played in her ideological moderation.

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