With no campaigns to canvas for and no debates to watch, conversations about politics at Bowdoin are continuing in smaller settings. In this civic spirit, the College Republicans will welcome former U.S. Representative Tom Allen ’67 this Saturday for an informal dinner conversation about political polarization and public service.
“It’s a critical topic for the country and for the health of our democracy,” said Allen in a phone interview with the Orient. “I mean, when people can barely talk to each other, both people in office and people who are voters, we’re in trouble.”
Allen represented Maine’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1997 until 2008 as a Democrat. After connecting with Allen at the recent John Kasich lecture, the College Republicans reached out to him, a move Francisco Navarro ’19, the club’s leader, says is in keeping with its role on campus, especially during an off season for campaigns.
“The campus needs intellectual diversity. That’s our big role here, the way we help the campus and ourselves: dealing with complicated political issues and engaging with good thought,” Navarro said.
Before being elected to Congress in 1996, Allen practiced law, served as mayor of Portland, and worked for legendary environmental advocate and longtime Maine senator Edmund Muskie. During his own term in Washington, Allen co-founded the House Oceans Caucus. Navarro said one of the driving curiosities of club members centers on his environmental work.
“[There is] an acceptance and a need for conservative environmentalism and hashing out what that looks like,” said Navarro.
During his term in the House, Allen served on the Energy and Commerce, Budget, Armed Services and Government Reform committees. In the 2008 elections, Allen ran against incumbent Susan Collins for Senate, but was defeated.
On college campuses or elsewhere, the key to sparking productive political discussions, according to Allen, is simple.
“Understanding why people are divided,” he said.
Allen explored this theme in his 2013 book, “Dangerous Convictions,” which examines the widening fault lines between parties and the chronic dysfunction which has come to characterize American politics. He cites the impeachment of President Bill Clinton as an example of this deepening polarization.
“When asked why [House Republicans] did it, Gingrich said, ‘Because we can.’” said Allen. “We’ve got to try to get back to Bowdoin’s mission of the Common Good, and that requires conversations among reasonable people to find common and appropriate solutions.”
Though political civility has been disintegrating for some time, it has only worsened since the 2016 elections, said Allen.
“It’s been dramatically accelerated by the president of this country,” he said. “You decide whether what he’s done is literally illegal, but he doesn’t abide by the norms that have restrained office holders on both sides of the aisle.”
As far as civility goes, Navarro gives Bowdoin tentative credit for avoiding the hostility towards free speech seen at peer institutions such as Middlebury, where student protests have prevented several guest speakers from presenting in recent years, but he warns that there is work yet to be done.
“We definitely like echo chambers and social hives that reinforce our previous beliefs,” said Navarro. “It’s up to all of us to seek out opportunities to discuss with civility and order.”
Allen remembers his time at the College as a dramatic period of political upheaval. He graduated from Bowdoin in 1967, just before the campus uprisings against the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Until this president, that was the greatest turmoil that I experienced,” Allen said. “A horrible, a horrible year. Cities were burning.”
A Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard Law School, with decades of civil service under his belt, Allen drew the attention of College Republicans, his party status notwithstanding.
“He’s clearly a Democrat,” said Navarro. “But that’s beside the point. He’s just a competent public servant that anyone can learn from.”
College Republicans and the community alike will benefit from the small-scale venue after a series of campus-wide lectures.
“It’s much more intimate and much more conversational,” said Navarro “[It] allow students to engage with him way more than they would with a few students asking a question on a microphone.”
Allen will be on campus Saturday evening for a dinner discussion with the College Republicans. The dinner is open to non-members.