Over the course of its long and storied history, The New Yorker has published just two "Letters from Maine." The first, published in 1958, is a digression on deer hunting. The second, published in 2006, focuses on the Somali community in Lewiston. It is an inadvertently revealing snapshot of social change over fifty years, but specifically revealing of urban perspectives on a predominantly rural state. A half century ago, New Yorkers looked upon Maine as a state full of Elmer Fudds anachronistically chasing after their suppers. But in 2006, it’s a place where 3,000 refugees live (fast forward to 2015: according to the New York Times, the number of refugees has nearly doubled in a working-class city of 36,000) and the women are gathering organic vegetables. Not to eat, but to sell. To restaurants.
Demographically speaking, Maine is the least ethnically diverse state in the U.S. It is 95 percent Caucasian, 1.4 percent Black, and 1.2 percent Asian. It is considered a battleground state, as it voted twice for Obama yet also twice elected a Tea Party governor, Paul LePage. But to characterize it as politically purple--equal parts red and blue--isn't quite accurate. What tourists mostly see is the blue version of the state, because the Maine vote splits along the old rural/urban divide. Northern Maine skews Republican. Southern Maine--what Mainers jokingly call "North Massachusetts"--skews Democrat. Basically, the state gets more Republican the further north you go. Put another way: nearly twice as many students at the University of Maine at Orono, which is in northern Maine, identify as Republican than Democrat. Closer to three times more if you figure that the Independent UM-O students lean conservative.
Give that the entire population of the state (1.3 million) is smaller than that of the borough of Manhattan (1.6 million), why should anyone care about a runoff mayoral election between Democrat Ben Chin and Republican incumbent Robert MacDonald in Lewiston next week? As Maine goes, so goes the nation, the old chestnut states. A former industrial mill town suffering from years of economic stress and an aging white population, it's also home to Bates College, where combined tuition, room, board and fees total more than $62,500 a year. Bates attracts students from around the world, but typically, these students don't linger after they graduate. The Somalis do. The steady influx of students and Somalis into white working-class Lewiston has turned it into a window into America's soul writ small. It's the "our town" of the play, "Our Town": the place where political paradigms come home to roost. Where fights over race, immigration, national security, religion, the economy, and the very meaning of being an American in the 21st century come sharply into focus. Who wins the mayoral election could likely tell us who will win the Presidential election.
North of newly hipster Portland, Lewiston demarcates the geographic and political shift from "North Massachusetts" to "real" Maine. It is unfashionable to understand people as being part of the land, but rural Mainers think anyone who hasn't been living here for at least three generations is "new." The state is not demographically white because it's keeping people out. It's because people don't want to move in. It gets really cold in the winters, and there's lots of ice and snow. If you're not constitutionally hearty with a deep and abiding love of winter sports, the weather can be hard to take. Yet even as working-class whites across the country are dying off, Lewiston is now one of the few places in Maine where the population is growing, and this is largely due to Somalis. (A similar story is playing out in Buffalo, New York, another city with tough winters that had experienced years of population decline until an influx of refugees revived it.)
Somalis stand out against the frozen landscape. It's because the refugees come from a climate so pointedly unlike Maine that their attraction to the city seems a puzzler. Yet Somalis weren't just tossed into Maine by government bureaucrats. After years in refugee camps, they were initially settled in big cities such as Atlanta and Memphis. "But many Somalis," explained a thorough report in Mother Jones, "who are Muslim and tend to have traditional, tight-knit families, found American urban life too violent, too drug-ridden, too infused with consumer culture." They left those locations in favor of Lewiston, which they chose for its low crime rates, small town values, and affordable housing. Somalis came to Maine because it's culturally conservative and resistant to social change. Lewiston now has a resident population of over 3,000 Somalis, and a mosque.
If Somalis are indeed the "new Yankees," what does that mean for the old Yankees? As a result of the contrasts between old and new, Lewiston has become a political parable capable of being narrated in two totally different ways: one that stresses immigration as an intrinsically American value, and another that insists on nativism as an equally righteous response. Over the past decade, Lewiston has sporadically popped up in the national news because of racist responses to "Maine's Mogadishu." But it is also the case that there's more than one kind of Somali in this group. There are Somali Bantus too, and they are discriminated against by Somalis. That Somalis and Bantus are Muslims exacerbates the isolating factor of race; the deeper one digs, the more complicated the situation gets.
These past few weeks, the U.S. has been forced to confront complex global realities such as the Syrian refugee crisis, a shameful rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric, fears over "sleeper" terrorists cells, and anti-Blackness in general. In the wake of 11/13, old fears are being stoked regarding the wisdom of bringing brown people into the US. It didn't help matters that in 2013, a rumor started (and is still active) that one of the terrorists responsible for blowing up Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was affirmed to be a refugee who'd left Portland, Maine to join up with radical Islamic group al-Shabab, even though both city community leaders and U.S. terrorism experts insisted that any such connection was highly unlikely, and that the vast majority of refugees are peace-seeking people who are fleeing violence. Paranoid fears aside, the screening process for refugees hoping to enter the US is tragic-comically difficult.
The two men now in a run-off for mayor of Lewiston perfectly encapsulate opposing political responses to issues forcing this country into a collective existential crisis. But in Maine, Somalis aren't philosophical abstractions. They're next-door neighbors.
Lewiston's mayoral race first became the subject of national attention thanks to racist signs that popped up with the slogan: "Don't Vote for Ho Chi Chin." (Chin thinks that some people ended up voting for him because of those signs, to repudiate bigotry and racism as the defining terms of their town.) The vote ended up split three ways: Chin (D) with 44 percent, MacDonald (R) with 38 percent, and another Republican, Steven Morgan, taking 15 percent. Since no one candidate took over 50 percent of the total, the office will be voted on again this December 8.
If Lewistonians vote along party lines, then MacDonald will win by a comfortable margin. In the meantime, however, Chin has not only received the endorsement of the majority of Lewiston's city council, he also has been newly endorsed by the national group, Democracy for America. Last weekend around Lewiston, I saw signs for Chin v. MacDonald running at about a rate of 3-1, which is also a symptom of the fact that Chin's campaign has significantly more cash and is continuing to attract it.
The November 19 runoff debate was respectful, the questions were substantive, and both candidates actually answered them directly. When asked about immigration, MacDonald replied: "No one should be treated differently. We are opposite... Chin focuses on immigrants. I don't want that. Let's just live our lives." Repeatedly stating that he respects the Somalis, MacDonald emphasized that the Somalis in Lewiston are "Lewistonians, not terrorists. I've had it up to here."
But MacDonald embodies an authoritarian approach to governing that seems unable to adapt to the complexities of a globalized world, struggling to preserve a status quo that dismisses institutional racism as so much gibberish while affirming structural whiteness as an immutable cultural norm. He pointed out that Joe Dunne, who posted the "Ho Chi Chin" signs on one of his buildings, is not his "buddy" but was still a "good guy," without whom many Somalis would not have a place to live. A former policeman, MacDonald denied that his plan to put welfare recipients on a public list was an attempt to "humiliate" the poor, insisting that his goal was simply to stop those who "abuse" it. All told, he espoused a worldview based on contraction and control, infused with a self-reliance narrative so strong that accepting federal dollars for social programs is tantamount to a moral failure.
Such views produce the dismal, protectionist scenario where working-class whites vote against their own self interests rather than extend the social safety net to assist non-white non-Christians. As Sean McElwee has concluded, "though there are many explanations for why working class whites vote Republican and many are certainly true, the overwhelming reason is rather simple: racism."
But the sneering rebuke of those people comes with more than a hint of class bias too. "It’s easy for the liberal intelligentsia to feel righteous in their disgust for lower-class white racism," Barbara Ehrenreich cautions, "but the college-educated elite that produces the intelligentsia is in trouble, too, with diminishing prospects and an ever-slipperier slope for the young." Invoking racism flattens the spiking socioeconomic constraints where few resources strain to support many across all sectors.
Again and again, MacDonald responded to questions by saying there is no money, there is nothing he can do, that Lewiston is "a poor city. We don't have the money. We're not going to get any more revenue sharing. I don't know where we are going to get the money." He's being honest. Lewiston is not a wealthy town. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, "the 'diseases' leading to excess white working class deaths are those of 'despair,' and some of the obvious causes are economic. In the last few decades, things have not been going well for working class people of any color." Whites included.
So if, scholar Catherine Bestemann writes of Lewiston's Somali Bantus, "many refugee adults in their 30s, who work at minimum wage jobs as cart pushers, cleaners, and box cutters in places like Walmart, Dunkin Donuts, and LL Bean, have told me that they now recognize that this country offers no career opportunities for them and their only hope is that their children might have a chance for a better job," the lack of career advancement has very little to do with the fact that they are Somalis or refugees. Because theseare the jobs. In Maine, my neighbor down the street is a night cashier at Walmart. Another friend works a part-time for L.L. Bean during the Christmas season and cleans houses the rest of the year. These women are not only white, they're college educated. Most of the men I know run heavy machinery, and that's a good gig. Benefits are a pipe dream. It goes downhill from there. They vote Republican.
In an essay that referenced Maine abundantly, Alex MacGillis analyzed the mystery of poor whites who vote against the very programs that could help them, even as blue states are now flipping red:
"In Maine, LePage was elected governor in 2010 by running on an anti-welfare platform in a state that has also grown more reliant on public programs — in 2013, the state ranked third in the nation for food-stamp use, just ahead of Kentucky. LePage, who grew up poor in a large family, has gone at safety-net programs with a vengeance. He slashed welfare rolls by more than half after imposing a five-year limit, reinstituted a work requirement for food-stamp recipients and refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to cover 60,000 people. He is now seeking to bar anyone with more than $5,000 in certain assets from receiving food stamps. “I’m not going to help anybody just for the sake of helping,” the governor said in September. 'I am not that compassionate.'"
Lewiston now faces a political choice. The people can remain party loyalists and vote Republican, in which case Lewiston becomes Trumpland. Or, they can take a chance on Chin, a political science student who attended Bates and stayed after he graduated. His response is to look beyond and think bigger, to attract federal dollars to run new programs and businesses, and create a network of public and private donors that can help restart the city's economic engines. It is an expansive, cooperative vision based on trust and building personal relationships, offering an optimistic repudiation of what Bestemann castigated as the "punitive neo-liberal position" that claims the mantle of humanitarianism while patrolling society's most vulnerable through "surveillance, discipline, moral judgment, humiliation."
Of the rise of toxic conservatism, Senator John McCain said today: “I think also — I probably shouldn’t say this — but some of this appeals to the bad angels of our nature rather than the better angels of our nature." In Massachusetts, Republican congressman and former Marine, Seth Mouton, has been openly slamming Republican governor Charlie Baker for refusing to admit Syrian refugees, calling it both "un-American" and "immoral." As army vet C. Patricio Trent stated: "Demonizing the vulnerable doesn't help anyone and makes us [Americans] look like assholes." Political choices shouldn't be defined by party but by our essential humanity. Fear--or trust?