I went to Sacopee Valley, a five town consolidated district high school located in rural Western, Maine. I was a kid that fit in with most everyone, but not enough to identify with any one group. I was sensitive, as I still am, and I wanted to be perceived as an intellectual even though I didn’t read much. Switch out cliques with circles of political identity and that reluctance to identify remains in tact today. I am a progressive who can’t see myself adopting progressive affectation, a Marxist who appreciates academics but does not feel comfortable among them.
After living in Portland, Boston, and New York, and traveling a bit in between, I moved back to Cornish in 2009. I inherited the house I grew up in when my father passed away. Politically engaged and motivated, though ideologically cautious, I decided to run for the Statehouse the following year. I wanted to talk about locally sourced food and issues important to young people. It was in part due to the aforementioned reasons that I ran unaffiliated. Of the two parties I certainly identified with the Democrats, but eschewing affiliation seemed like a no-brainer.
The parties never meant much to me. I wanted to talk about issues, not affiliation, with as many people as possible. My district is a conservative one where many people young and old inherently distrust Democrats and I didn’t want to have to waste any time explaining a letter in parentheses next to my name. I didn’t take the run too seriously at first. I invited Joe Ricchio to throw one of my fundraisers and I smoked a joint with friends of my opponent at my launch party. But the more I talked with everyone, the more I enjoyed and excelled in the process of understanding where folks were coming from regardless of identification. By the time Election Day came and went, I ended up getting a Hell of a lot more votes than anyone expected.
Looking back through the evolution of my engagement, I remember being excited by the possibilities for dialogue that I imagined in the early days of Facebook. I had not yet moved back home and I loved that I could connect with friends who thought differently, and we could civilly discuss the things we disagreed on because we were all in Boy Scouts or Little League or church together and really how harsh could a disagreement get? You could engage about different points of view without flying into the sort of snarky and hostile exchanges we Internet junkies usually reserve for anonymous commenters. You could be willing to see other points of view, to disagree with grace.
Then Facebook started culling our feeds unbeknownst to us. Modifications in the design hid from us the people we were less likely to agree and engage with. This created for many echo chambers of like-minded folks, creating politically homogenous feeds perfect for banal and predictable exchanges. At about that same time the Tea Party emerged and the Fox snake kept eating its own tail and the Koch Brothers and Citizens United and the status quo who seems exponentially more self satisfied and apoplectic than it did just 5 years ago.
I don’t know if we do it any less or more than we did before, but folks put a lot more value on having the right answer and being part of a righteous team than they do hearing someone out or better understanding a perspective. That run in 2010 did not make me any less left wing, but it did shape the way that I address issues in conversation with friends and strangers. The ambition to be righteous often trumps common sense—who in their right mind thinks that anyone outside of a cafe downtown is interested in any conversation that employs the term oligarchy, anyway. It trumps the desire to hear, and it trumps the desire to make an earnest attempt to be heard.