The contrast couldn’t have been greater. The editorial in last Thursday’s edition of this paper proclaimed, “Gov. LePage has lost his four-year battle to keep health care coverage from low-income Mainers.” Simultaneously, the front-page story in the very same paper reported that the governor “vows to bar expansion (of Medicaid) unless legislators find a way to fund it.” Talk about the irresistible force and the immovable object.

With every election, the conclusion is becoming increasingly clear: Be it expressed by 300,000 voters or 700,000 voters, the “will of the people” is not the same thing as governing.

Despite advances in artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles are a lot closer to reality than autonomous government. Numbers from voting machines do not create programs, establish budgets, impose and collect taxes or hire people to execute whatever we may decide is in “the public interest.” Election results may give us a way to measure the “will of the people,” but they cannot achieve it. That remains the task of the far murkier process of self-government.

Examining the proverbial sausage factory and getting involved in its operating procedures is the only alternative to the increasingly frequent, expensive and frustrating process of collecting signatures and returning to the polls yet again to guarantee that the “will of the people” is finally enacted into law. In reviewing the results of the recent elections in New Jersey and Virginia, Republican columnist Peggy Noonan said “in both (parties), ambivalent leaders are chasing after voters they no longer understand.” In Maine, we might paraphrase her by saying that “dead-certain voters are chasing after leaders they neither understand nor trust.”

In neither case will the chase result in effective governance. A duel that pits representatives trying to be whatever they think will get them re-elected against one-issue zealots trying to force their definitions of the “will of the people” through the ballot box will only increase today’s sense of pessimism about our politics and government.

To my mind the answer to our political malaise lies not at the ballot box, but in the neighborhoods, not in ever-more-expensive one-issue campaigns, but in increased public involvement in the ideas and campaigns of candidates for local, state and national offices.

Though we may want to “get through” to “the politicians,” ours is a representative democracy. Though we may vote on an issue, those “politicians” and the government officials they hire are the people who will create the programs that will or will not express our “will.” The best way to ensure that they realize whatever “will” we may have is not to insist that they promise that they will vote a specific way on a specified list of questions, but to insist that they give us a clear definition of their methods of dealing with colleagues, regardless of party.

Our state and our nation face two sorts of problems: factual and procedural. Those in the first set are obvious to all: Our climate is changing and confronting us with only vaguely understood costs of adaptation; the costs of health care are astronomically high, unnecessarily complicated and, for our population as a whole, produce abysmal results; our education system is failing to provide entry into the labor market for too many students; and our tax code is an impenetrable maze of special favors that hamstrings our economy.

The second problem is “How do we address the first set?” One option is to raise the volume and ferocity of partisan politics at the ballot box? Another is to direct our elected representatives to address problems without regard to existing programs or partisan proposals.

We must, I believe, move from partisan programs to problem statements, from a priori litmus tests (How will you vote on X, Y and Z?) to assessments of ability to collaborate (How do you try to resolve disputes?) The approach of focusing not on some ethereal “will of the people,” but on the qualifications of those who would represent their portion of “the people,” will serve us far better. Choosing our representatives less on the basis of where they stand today on any particular issue and more on their ability to govern throughout their terms will produce both better solutions to our problems and a healthier democracy.

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

[email protected]