I have never believed that people get the governments they deserve. No one deserves the inept, self-serving politics we saw in Ottawa yesterday. I don’t know which is more offensive, the ineptitude or the self-promotion.

But what is a voter to do? Electoral politics is the only kind they offer us. And that is always deeply flawed, even on less revolting occasions. It is flawed by (1) the huge influence of money on the process, even after campaign-finance reform; and (2) the forms of manipulation and control that money buys, which include advertising, polls, public relations, outright bribery and, more subtly, the “disinterested” framing of issues by media, themselves widely controlled by the same money.

It seems to me a knowing citizen has two options: cynicism or caginess. You drop out and don’t vote — which I consider neither stupid nor meaningless. Or you go underground, roll with the manipulation, but find a way, furtive and devious if necessary, to do the unthinkable: Act meaningfully within our dysfunctional system. Here are three examples I find hopeful.

The last federal election: The polls got it all wrong, predicting a Conservative majority or minority. Many experts say the Liberals scared people out of voting Conservative in the final days, but where did the Liberals get that sudden credibility, since the whole campaign was framed around Liberal villainy over the sponsorship scandal?

The CBC pushed it as much as the private media. Even the new Liberal Prime Minister joined in. But what if many voters had decided it was just one more middling scandal in a country born in scandals, and that the key question was which scandal-prone party could best protect the programs they cherish?

When a pollster asks if this monstrous scandal bothers them, why should they say what they really think? When offered an outrage meter, should they select “mild”? Finally, when asked whom they will vote for, do they want to be seen rewarding the scoundrels they just vilified? People care about how others see them. Not wanting to look idiotic is a fundamental human trait. But then they vote, where no one can see, deride or think ill of them.

Ontario politics: The McGuinty government has sprung back in popularity. How do you account for that — at the very moment the opposition Tories chose a new “moderate” leader who can plausibly challenge them? Since their June budget, in which they “broke their promise” not to raise taxes by imposing a dedicated health levy, they have been scourged in the polls and media. The Globe and Mail columnist Murray Campbell, who seems basically sympathetic to them, gets apoplectic about it every other day.

But what if many voters didn’t much care about the “betrayal,” and considered it a stupid pledge at a stupid moment in an election? Common sense tells people that you can’t keep cutting taxes and have decent services. Good things cost money, sorry about that. But why stick your head up in that blizzard of infantile reprimand? You wait a decent time, till the opposition nominates its alternative, then you quietly let it be known how you really feel. It has a touch of sticking it to — whoever. I imagine it makes John Tory edgy.

The U.S. election: So you thought Americans would choose a leader based on the issue of flip-flops? Even with an ultimate reality check available: live, daily reports from Iraq? Yesterday, I watched journalists scurry in the lobby of the Baghdad hotel they rarely leave for security reasons, as it came under attack. Until recently, the whole election seemed built around the Kerry flip-flops. Then came the first debate. For my money, John Kerry didn’t look a lot less flip-floppy. But he raised the issue that must be on many minds: The war is a disaster and has made the U.S. less safe. On that, he differed with George Bush, if on little else. It was enough. It seemed to be what people were waiting for. The polls evened and now no one knows how it will end.

(For those who recall a recent column, in which I wrote that U.S. voters and others seek not truth but mere reassurance: What can I say? Disparate impulses can inhabit the same society, and even the same person.)


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.