“King” of nostalgia reminds us of a happier time

Alex Greenlee | The Free Press

Posted on October 31, 2012 in Perspectives
By Jacob Lowry

Forget about Portland, Oregon – the dream of the ‘90s is alive right here in Maine and former Governor extraordinaire Angus King is its champion.

At this point, it’s likely that King will win the Senate race in a landslide. His campaign has skillfully responded to Mainers’ frustrations with what I call the two party binary of doom. As a friend recently mused, the former Governor just “doesn’t smell like a politician.” King’s success as the ‘common sense’ moderate and rational compromiser stems from Maine’s long history of idiosyncratic, stubborn, no-nonsense individualism. We do things our own way, thank you very much.

But this is only part of the story. To grasp the true meaning of the man with the golden moustache, we must dive deep within the intricate workings of Maine’s hive mind.

It is clear that King’s popularity is an expression of a collective nostalgia for the comparatively prosperous times he presided over. The last decade of the 20th century will surely stand as the culmination of post-war prosperity and devil-may-care consumer excess preceding the denouement of permanent economic crisis and environmental catastrophe. Bear with me.

While it would be crazy to suggest that the ‘90s were great for everyone (and they weren’t), the decade is looked upon with fondness through the lens of our national collective unconscious.

Once upon a time we pumped Ace of Base cassettes as we drove to sprawling malls guzzling gasoline that cost around $1.00 per gallon. Television sitcoms like Seinfeld and Frasier implored us to abandon the old ways and enthusiastically “step into the ‘90s.” Boundless faith in endless progress through eternal economic growth was manifested in the dotcom bubble and its comforting reminder that “[we’ve] got mail.” Even the ultimate consumerist rebellion seen in Kurt Cobain’s suicide could not rescue us from the allure of “always low prices.” We parked our minivans in 30-acre parking lots and frolicked through the wide open fields of free-market capitalism, never expecting that the well would someday dry up.

When the bubble burst, Maine awoke to discover that the industries and agriculture we depended on had been decimated. It was the dawn of the flexible economy.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, Maine’s unemployment rate was six percent when Angus King became governor in January 1995. It careened to a low of 3.2 percent in June 2000; the figure is now 7.7 percent, a number that doesn’t include Mainers who’ve given up looking for work. The Maine Department of Agriculture reports that the average statewide food security rate has fallen from its 1996-1998 level of 90.2 percent to 84.6 percent from 2008-2010, meaning more people don’t have the means to keep food on the table. A recent study by Chase Bank economists shows that the Maine GDP peaked around the year 2000, steadily declined and is now lagging behind the national average.

Charts and graphs, however, do nothing to convey the kind of ferocious decline that much of rural Maine has experienced in the last decade. North of Portland, industry has largely shrivelled up, young people have steadily left and derelict homesteads stand next to collapsed barns for miles upon miles.

Although I cannot really claim to be from northern Maine, I was born in Houlton and my family roots are in Aroostook and Penobscot counties. I come from a long line of people whose livelihood depended on the industrial and agricultural economy that allowed Maine to thrive for over a century. They were potato farmers, truck drivers, railroad workers, food inspectors, teachers and lunch ladies. Many of my father’s classmates in East Millinocket graduated from Schenck High School to a steady job at the paper mill, which kept the town afloat until the paper industry began to collapse two decades ago.

Strangely enough, the mill resumed operations last year thanks to paper production for the immensely popular erotic novel series Fifty Shades of Grey. But the jobs that used to be dependable are now precarious. East Milliknocket is now dotted with foreclosed homes and people are wondering what became of the old economy that buoyed them.

Even in my lifetime, I have seen the vibrancy of northern Maine sucked dry. Statewide, there is a tangible sense of hopelessness that really does make the ‘90s seem like a dream. Just by governing competently during his two terms, Angus King has become a symbol of better times. I would argue that many supporters are not voting on his campaign promises, but a nostalgia for the relative prosperity of Governor King’s Maine.

It is not my intention to argue for or against King, only to postulate on the unspoken ruminations of the Pine Tree State and the nation at large. Collectively, we yearn for the post-war American dream that is never coming back. Growth is our mantra, but everyone knows it is too late — our financialized, debt-based economy will eventually collapse.

As we stood in line for our sugary sweet Orange Julius so long ago, the productive economy evaporated beneath our feet, and the fallout continues to drive Mainers into poverty.

Jake Lowry is an English major and philosophy minor in his senior year.