The older I get, and the more strident the shouting that serves as political discourse becomes, the more I am convinced that we should return to that archaic description of the disparate elements that together compose this thing all our new candidates seek to lead — the body politic.

Thirty-five years ago, I used to run from my office or a hearing room to the old YMCA in Augusta, slip into shorts and shoes and join the next group to number five. Together we would dash onto the court to bump, shove and attempt to run around and shoot over five other assorted bureaucrats, Cabinet members and legislators. If we got five baskets first, we’d remain on court to take on the next five. Win and stay on, or lose and leave. Only the most egregious fouls were enforced, and then, only by silent consensus. We’d all get as much exercise as a lunch “hour” would allow, shower, dress and rush back to work.

No one thought about aches and pains, much less discussed them. The point was “have fun; enjoy the game.” Today, I can’t start a beginner-level yoga class without a careful, five-minute body inventory. Which toe, shoulder or rib hurts today? How shall I explore and inhabit this old body today? The point is “keep this collection of tissue and bone and organs that has served me so well for so long in sufficient condition to do what I choose to do today.”

This attitude of careful attention to a complex organism that has served many of us reasonably well over our lifetimes is precisely the attitude we desperately need to bring to our body politic. For many of us, it has served us reasonably well over our lifetimes. At the same time, its history holds numerous examples and the promise of better serving tomorrow those of us who haven’t been served so well in the past.

Our body politic, both nationally and in Maine, has been battered into a bloody and increasingly angry pulp over the past 20 years by the philosophy of 50.1 percent. Do whatever is needed to get a fraction over one-half of those voting on your side — whatever cost that may impose on truth, human decency and the chance for broader social well-being — then impose your ideological position on everyone. Since at least 2000, our body politic has been like a patient on a gurney being tugged by two competing specialists toward two separate operating rooms where two radical, frightening and very different procedures await, each of which, we are assured, will cure all our ills.

To my mind, the very intensity of the battle undermines the promised outcome. We don’t need radical surgical transformation – we need careful contemplation of our goals. We don’t need more (or fewer) government programs – we need a strategy of governance. Our body politic needs a time-out. The exhausting games we played heedlessly three decades ago because they were so much fun aren’t as enjoyable anymore. Our body politic demands a different approach to return to health. The old saw about academic politics applies more broadly today: Question: “Why is it so vicious?” Answer: “Because there is so little at stake.”

Repealing or failing to repeal Obamacare will not make our system of health care healthy. Cutting taxes for the rich will not make our economy healthy. Slapping quotas and import duties on products from outside U.S. borders will improve neither labor force participation nor labor productivity. Financing 55 percent of Maine’s K-12 education system with state rather than local taxes will neither improve the quality of education nor reduce the local property tax burden.

All of those electoral outcomes will constitute victories for some and defeats for others. But not a one will improve the quality of governance in this state or in this nation. And that failure will leave our body politic — the subject on which we all should be focusing – to continue its slow, irritable and increasingly irrational descent into a sad state of dementia.

The question voters in Maine and in the nation of a whole should forcefully pose to each and every candidate who seeks to lead us is not, “What is your position on ____ (fill in the blank for issue or program)?” It is, rather, “How do you propose to govern our body politic?”

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

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