State of Maine: The sad evolution of American democracy 

The world’s greatest deliberative body (WGDB) has sworn off deliberating. It has reached the point where proposals are developed – long, complicated, expensive proposals – but rather than publicly argue the merits, the WGDB will not even allow debate. Not. Allow. Debate. 

This is how democracy works now. The majority party looks at its list of priorities, based on what it heard from voters in the last election cycle. Take prescription drug prices. They are so unaffordable that people don’t bother going to the doctor at all, knowing they won’t be able to afford the prescribed course of treatment, or they make a visit to their doc, come away with a prescription and throw it in their sock drawer with all the other prescriptions they couldn’t afford to fill. 

So, prescription drug pricing is a big deal, about which U.S. senators hear much from their constituents. A RAND Corporation study this year found that in the U.S., we pay over twice as much for medication than people in 32 other countries. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 83 percent of Americans support the federal government negotiating for lower drug prices. No surprise there. 

Update to how democracy works now: When a drug benefit was added to Medicare in 2003, an intensive lobbying campaign ended in a prohibition on Medicare negotiating lower drug prices. In 2019, the House passed a proposal to allow some level of price negotiating but the Senate, the WGDB, stopped it cold. Lobbyists 2, citizens 0. 

How can that be? You know the answer. It’s money, honey. The Center for Responsive Politics says it cost $15.8 million to win a Senate seat in 2018. Candidates are not going to raise that kind of money from people who can’t afford prescription drugs. Despite the overwhelming sentiment of the American people, Republicans in the Senate said the heck with deliberating. They did not stand up and argue their position on drug pricing. They stood up and voted not to allow debate. 

A spokesperson for the Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program said: “There is nobody that doesn’t want this to happen except pharma and its allies. The popular outrage is immense.” Said the Senate: Unless you can match lobbyists’ spending, you can put that outrage where the sun don’t shine. 

Let’s take another example, that of the Freedom to Vote Act. Last week Maine Sen. Angus King gave the sort of speech Mainers have come to expect of their senators. Eloquent and earnest, Sen. King pled not just for this particular bill but for the future of our democracy. A determined optimist, the state of affairs in Washington is clearly weighing on our senator.  

Without voter protections, said King, “…we will be left with a downward spiral toward a hollow shell of democracy, where only raw power prevails and its peaceful transfer becomes a distant memory.” The WGDB was not listening. Literally. The speech was, as a radio quiz program says in its intro, “recorded before an audience of no one.” Today in the WGDB, “deliberation” means getting up to speak in an empty chamber with subsequent responses coming by way of photo ops, not by virtue of another senator rising to speak on the floor. 

A Senate rule provides that “the television broadcast of Senate proceedings shall follow the Presiding Officer and Senators who are speaking, clerks, and the chaplain except during rollcall votes when the television cameras shall show the entire Chamber.” In other words, that audience of no one consists of empty seats and is protected from the public eye when a senator is speaking. Most of the time, our senators do not even go to Senate sessions. The world’s greatest deliberators have no one with whom to deliberate.  

The threat to voting rights is not hypothetical. Nineteen states have enacted over 30 bills to make voting more difficult. Republicans say they are acting in defense of voter fraud, yet all of the challenges, investigations and audits of last year’s much-protested presidential election turned up a whole lot of nothing. 

Within 48 hours of Sen. King’s speech, Senate Republicans blocked the Freedom to Vote Act without debate, silently stifling deliberation through Senate rules. The “For the People” voting rights act was likewise obstructed by Republicans last spring. This is not about who wins the debate. It is a matter of whether there is a debate at all. 

It was a cry for help, but it fell on deaf ears, or would have had there been any ears present. Angus King embodies the best of the Maine public service tradition, but there are few others who can be said to do the same. The world’s greatest deliberative body needs to start deliberating. 


Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County. 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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