What's a poor voter to do?

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This election is like a snapshot of Canadian political culture. You don't see it standing this still very often. Snap it fast.

The polls have barely moved since the start. Here is what they show. Our dominant political culture is social democratic. (As opposed to democratic socialist. There is nothing socialist on the electoral radar.) This includes 60 to 65 per cent of voters, almost two of three, dispersed among the four opposition parties. They are all capitalist free marketers, but they believe in collective action, largely through governments, to achieve social, economic, environmental and other aims. The minority political culture here is what in the United States they call democratic capitalist; they comprise 35 to 40 per cent, undispersed in the Conservative camp. They focus on individual, as opposed to public or governmental, activity. Their favourite form of public policy is tax cuts, to "free" individuals to pursue private goals.

Grab this picture quickly, since the minute the election happens, the clarity will vanish. At that point, an optical illusion will occur because there will be a government — probably Conservative but even if it's not — voted in by a minority, which looks and acts as if it represents a clear majority view. That's the effect of our backward, embarrassing, first-past-the-post electoral system. CLICK.

Those who belong to the majority on this graph have been cautiously shifting votes a tad among themselves, as if rearranging deck chairs on the left, albeit larger, side of the Titanic. They seem basically happy in their separate parties. The main thing that unites them is a desire that the "right" minority not retain power. The leaders' seating at the debates showed all this. They looked like a pie chart around that table, although the chunks of surface before each one should have differed moderately.

What the snapshot shows is that, among the population, we have no fierce "left-right" conflict of the sort the media like to portray. The left, in our mild version of it, is dominant and the right, also fairly mild, a persistent minority. But our electoral system distorts this, producing false majorities, sometimes in "minority" form. Proportional representation, which much of the world follows — aside from us, the U.S. and Britain — would rectify that, but it's not on the horizon.

So you can see why some voters have invented creative solutions, a.k.a. strategic voting. You can go onto websites like www.voteforenvironment.ca or www.voteforclimate.ca, enter your riding or area code, and find out which "left" party is most likely to be elected over the Conservatives, so that you don't "waste" your vote and help re-elect Stephen Harper. Or you can join the Facebook Anti-Harper Vote Swap group, a kind of electoral cap-and-trade system among voters in different parts of the country. It has only 11,000 members but could make a difference, say, to Harper minister Tony Clement, who won his seat in Ontario cottage country by just 28 votes. These are democratic grassroots initiatives that the media have sparsely mentioned, perhaps for the same reasons they largely oppose proportional representation - which I admit I've never quite managed to grasp. How about realignment or merger among parties on the "left"? Wouldn't that make sense? Yes and no. If you ask Jack Layton what distinguishes his NDP from the Dion Liberals, he'll smugly say, you can trust me and not them — which may be reason enough to toss him in with them. On the other hand, if you dive into a big mushball like the Liberal Party in order to act as their left or environmental wing, you might vanish and never be heard from till you reseparate in order to make your points heard again, as the Reform Party left the Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s, or Ralph Nader split from the Democrats in the United States.

It's a confusing situation and I trust I've contributed to it.

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