My first and only successful venture into electoral politics occurred in March 1972, when I was elected moderator of the town meeting in Industry, a small community north of Farmington.

My wife and I had just moved to town two months earlier with our two (soon to be three) children, and we looked forward to fulfilling our civic duty. As the town clerk called the meeting to order and asked for nominations for a moderator, I settled in for my first glimpse of direct democracy in action. Immediately, a deep voice from the back of the room called out, “I nominate the Professah!”

Turns out that was me. That I was actually a lowly instructor at the University of Maine at Farmington was a distinction without a difference to local voters. Seems that the longtime incumbent, Ole Buddy K, had gotten too long-winded in his commentary on each item on the warrant. As a result, an influential cabal of residents, determined not to spend another four hours of a Saturday listening to Ole Buddy K’s reminiscences, figured that someone who taught at “the college” could do the job and not cause any trouble.

“I second that nomination.”

“Other nominations? Hearing none, all in favor say ‘yea.’ Mr. Lawton is the moderator.”

I must have been OK, for I was re-elected for four consecutive March town meetings and one special meeting on closing the town dump. At these meetings, citizens voted on many controversial issues, including Maine’s first school tax equalization act. Passions ran high, and tempers often got hot.

I came to see myself as the wall in a multi-person game of handball. Speakers were often arguing with someone else in the crowd, but they had to direct all their rants through me. I ricocheted their message to the respondent, who batted it back to me or to someone else until everyone was sufficiently run down to call for a vote. However harsh the debate, I never went home after the meeting without shaking hands with many of the participants and making new acquaintances.

Since those days, I have participated (generally as a paid consultant during my tenure with Planning Decisions) in scores of similar civic encounters – with town councils, planning boards, school boards, economic development committees and numerous legislative committees. I have been privileged to work with strong-minded, strong-willed citizens dedicated both to their communities and to the process of group collaboration.

I have also been subjected to the torture of trying to work with people who all said that they wanted to work together but whose condition for such collaboration was universal acceptance of what they believed when they walked in the door to the first meeting. Such groups – even when infected with only one or two of what I have come to call “absolute certaintists” – generally turned the whole process toxic.

During our national celebration of self-governance amid the shambles of a state government shutdown, I am driven to try to distill the difference between the two very different outcomes for the democratic process that I have seen so many times. What are the qualities required for successful self-governance? And what are the poisons that turn it into self-destructive conflict?

What distinguishes those deliberative bodies whose procedures and outcomes I would call successful is commitment to making a decision. And that involves formulating an issue or question, articulating and evaluating alternate outcomes and, finally, making a choice. Collective distillation of this quality in a group requires purging two poisons: egocentrism and slavish water carrying.

The first is most easily illustrated by consideration of the last presidential election. To my mind, anyone who voted for neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton did not make a political decision; they cast votes for the purpose of more easily living with their own feelings. They left the political decision-making to others, thereby failing to participate in the process.

The same is true of those who would lead primarily for the purpose of gaining public adulation. Of course, we all crave respect and want others to think well of us. But these should not be the reasons for seeking public service, be it the newest volunteer opening on a town committee or the highest office in the land. Honest decisions come from dark nights of the soul, not careful review of the polls.

Finally, good government decisions are the product of careful analysis of current evidence, open-minded discussion with fellow members of the particular public body and deep, individual deliberation. Members who participate solely to convey and repeat any particular position are equally unproductive. Those who are slaves to some external master are as destructive to representative democracy as those who are slaves to an internal ego. Both are ultimately destructive of the central democratic values of open-minded, collaborative decision-making designed to serve a purpose bigger than any individual ego or issue.

Unless we find ways to distill these qualities back into the alchemy of our democratic institutions, we will surely poison ourselves.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

cttlaw3@gmail.com