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Senator Susan Collins addresses political polarization and “State of Our Democracy” in discussion

April 16, 2021

On Tuesday evening, students and community members gathered on Zoom for the fifth discussion in the College’s “After the Insurrection: Conversations on Democracy” series. The event, moderated by President Clayton Rose, featured U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) as she discussed “The State of Our Democracy and Political System.”

In her introductory remarks, Collins highlighted four main causes of political polarization in the United States: the role of social media, fragmentation of news, residential sorting and the expectation of political purity. She identified the blanket idea of polarization as her primary issue of concern in the current political climate.

“[Political polarization] … threatens our democratic institutions and our sense of community, of what it means to be part of this country,” Collins said. “This polarization makes it difficult to solve problems or even to agree on what the most important problems are.”

According to Collins, the four central factors she isolated both explain the increased polarization and can help the public understand the political dynamics that led to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Following her initial remarks, Collins elaborated on America’s political divide, answering a series of questions from Rose and the audience. In answer to a question about the Republican Party’s transformation under former U.S. President Donald Trump, Collins brought up concerns about political polarization within both major parties.

“I don’t think our party is a cult party—I do not think it is about any one person, whether it is  President Trump or anyone else,” Collins said. “I think it is a mistake to not look at the many leaders we have in the Republican Party and recognize that we are a diverse party and that many of us hold very varied views—and to me, that is a good sign.”

Additionally, she emphasized that increased polarization is not unique to the Republican Party.

“I think in many ways the Democratic Party has become more and more pulled to the left in recent years, and both parties have problems right now,” Collins said. “Both parties, in my view, need to be more open to diverse views within their caucus. I would like to see both parties return to the center.”

Consistently rated as the most liberal Republican senator, Collins has built her image around being a moderate and bipartisan figure willing to work across the aisle. In her remarks, she stressed that the presence of fellow moderates will be essential to calming the current polarized political climate.

“I would like to see a return to the middle,” said Collins. “What will that take? It will take having moderates be as fanatical about their views as those on the far left and the far right. We need more fanatical moderates … So, if there are any of you out there who are moderates, you need to be as engaged as those who are on the far left or far right.”

Inserting this call to moderate action in the middle of a broader argument about the increasingly polarized political climate seemed illogical to some attendees.

“She made a repeated claim … that she wanted people who were moderates to have as much passion about their politics as people on the left and the right, which in conversation with other people who attended the event we all thought was a little silly,” Catherine Crouch ’23 said in a phone interview with the Orient.

Given Collins’ political reputation and party affiliation, a number of student attendees said that they were surprised by the College’s choice to invite her to speak. But not all viewed this as  an inappropriate decision.

“I think a lot of people … are not willing to hear opposing viewpoints, and I’m still of the mindset that that’s an important thing, no matter what you believe,” Crouch said. “I do think … she was an important guest to have, and I do think having a current senator come speak is a cool opportunity to take advantage of, so in that sense I respect her coming.”

Other students expressed disappointment in the choice to include Collins in the series, especially in comparison with the speakers peer institutions were able to secure this spring.

“I was really disappointed [when it was announced she would be coming],” Mason Winter ’23 said in an interview with the Orient. “Tufts, another NESCAC, brought in some more interesting and engaging speakers—bringing in Stacey Abrams [as they did] is something that a lot of the student body would really get excited about, whereas bringing in Susan Collins isn’t something that’s super enthralling for a lot of the student body.”

Given her role as a part of the “After the Insurrection” speaker series, Rose asked Collins to describe her personal experience on Capitol Hill on January 6 and elaborate on the larger context behind the insurrection itself. Collins highlighted the insurrectionists’ claims of systemic voter fraud in the 2020 election, driven at least in part by the political polarization she mentioned repeatedly throughout the conversation.

“It was surreal, seeing a man with a bare chest and wearing horns, sitting where once the vice president had sat,” Collins said. “I was determined, as most of my colleagues were, to return to the Senate Chamber as soon it was safe to do so, and finish our constitutional duty. And certify the results of the election, which would show that Joe Biden had won. I felt it was so important for our democracy that we finish our job.”

Winter said that he wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the answers that Collins gave, largely due to the fact that, in his view, Rose declined to offer many particularly challenging or incendiary questions. However, he said that he was disappointed by Collins’ tendency to evade some of the topics Rose brought up.

“I think overall [President Rose] did a pretty solid job [moderating],” Winter said. “I do think that he asked some really interesting questions, some of which [Collins] evaded and some of which she addressed more. I think there were some follow-up questions that should have been asked—she was talking about QAnon, but her PAC actually donated to the campaigns of two QAnon supporters, so I think that should have been followed up on. [Collins] also mentioned left-wing conspiracy theories [in passing], and that was something I think she should have elaborated on.”

Some students were also troubled by Collins’s discussion of public housing.

“Unfortunately, I am probably going to make news and create controversy, but I am not a fan of public housing,” Collins said. “What I am a fan of is giving low-income individuals and families a voucher so that they can live wherever they want to live.”

This comment was ill-received by some students in attendance.

“[Collins said] she thought there’s ‘stuff to be done’ [in terms of public housing] but wasn’t the biggest advocate for wanting to improve the buildings we currently have and what we currently give out, [which] was a little jarring to hear,” Crouch said. “It was to be expected, but still definitely a lot.”

Collins also discussed housing in the context of her point about residential sorting, providing as an example the way residential sorting and polarization are emerging in Maine.

“Portland has become more and more liberal, and some of the more rural parts of our state have become more conservative,” Collins said. “People are being less exposed to neighbors … or anyone that they interact with regularly who may have different views than they have. We see that as …. voter patterns. I was very pleased in this last election to carry 85 percent of Maine’s communities, but I got walloped in the city of Portland, just to give you an idea of residential sorting [here].”

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