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Senator King addresses partisanship and the election at Zoom talk

September 26, 2020

In lieu of speaking about Joshua Chamberlain at the annual convening dinner, Senator Angus King (I-ME) took part in a Zoom conversation with the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities on Thursday night, addressing a variety of pertinent political issues, such as the upcoming election, the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice, the growing partisanship in Congress and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs and John. S. Osterweis Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Jennifer Scanlon hosted the conversation and moderated the question-and-answer session. She had a few questions prepared for King, and others were submitted both in advance by email and in real time through the live chat function.

King’s opening remarks centered on a speech President Donald Trump made on Wednesday night in which he hinted that he might not accept the results of the November election and agree to a peaceful transition of power. King characterized those statements as possibly the most disturbing thing that Trump has ever said.

“The reason this is so disturbing to me is that this goes to the heart of our democratic system. We forget—because we’ve lived it all our lives—that our system is an anomaly in world history,” he said. “The difference between the United States and most of the rest of the world and most of the rest of history is the peaceful transition of power. That’s something we’ve managed to do for well over 200 years.”

King also stated that this year’s election would be incredibly unusual, with mail-in voting delaying the final results. But the delay, he said, should not undermine faith in the electoral process.

“I think it’s really important for the American people to get ready for not knowing the final results on election night. But that doesn’t mean there’s fraud going on … Electoral fraud is minuscule in this country and has been in every study that’s been done on it,” he said.

Many questions were directed at the Supreme Court vacancy that has opened up as a result of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent passing and Trump’s effort to fill it less than two months before a presidential election. King roundly condemned his Republican colleagues for what he saw as hypocrisy and a lack of regard for tradition, citing the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland nine months before the 2016 election. At the same time, he feels that there is little that can be done to stop the impending confirmation hearing.

“The truthful answer is that there really aren’t parliamentary tools whereby it can ultimately be stopped,” he said. “It can be delayed, but, ultimately, there are not the votes to stop the process.”

To date, only two Republican senators have voiced opposition to the confirmation hearings—Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

One of Scanlon’s questions was directed at the growing partisanship in Congress. She noted that King, as an Independent in the Senate who caucuses with the Democratic Party, occupies a fairly unique position.

“Your website talks about your success in breaking through ideological barriers to help people with vastly different political perspectives come to respect and possibly even like each other … Are things so divided in D.C. that those across-the-aisle relationships are no longer possible?” she asked.

King answered that bipartisan moments still occur, citing the recently passed Great Americans Outdoors Act, which vastly increases government spending on conservation programs, as well as the first CARES Act, the COVID-19 stimulus package that passed unanimously in March. King said that it was strange to see Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both voting for the same bill.

On the whole, however, the new customs among senators have made it difficult to build meaningful personal relationships.

“Everyone goes home on weekends, and their families are at home. And so there’s a total lack of social life [among the senators],” he said. “The relationships I saw in the 70s were the different parties, different members, they go to Little League games with their kids together, their kids went to the same schools, they’d have potluck dinners, they commuted together.”

King remarked that party loyalties have largely overshadowed institutional loyalty, which has led to a steady erosion of congressional authority. King brought up the power to declare war and conduct trade as two powers of Congress that have been ceded to the executive branch over the years.

“The most shocking one to me, though, was … where the president unilaterally reached into the budget, which was passed by Congress, and took money from military construction to put to the wall,” he said. “That was a total abdication of one of Congress’s most fundamental powers, which is the power of the purse.”

King warned that, if Congress fails to re-establish its institutional independence, the political system in the United States would resemble an elective monarchy.

One of the students in attendance, Philip al Mutawaly ’24, appreciated King’s insights into contemporary politics.

“I honestly feel very enlightened,” he said.

Next week, the College will be hosting another speaker, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served in that role under former U.S. President Barack Obama. Associate Professor of Government Maron Sorenson will be hosting the conversation.

“It’ll be great to have former AG Eric Holder ‘on campus’ next week. Given his long and distinguished career in the Department of Justice, and his continued work on voting rights, I look forward to hearing his perspectives on a variety of topics including the Court vacancy, the current Attorney General [Williaml Barr] and the upcoming election,” Sorenson wrote in a statement to the Orient.

The talk will take place on Thursday, October 1 at 5:30 p.m.. Registration will be required in order to attend.


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