House of Cards

In the runup to the recent Ontario elections we happened to find ourselves addicted to watching House of Cards, both the original British series—an elegant black comedy—and the American one—Shakespearean in ambition and reach. Meditations on power and its corollaries, the idea seems to be that every human society has a quotient of monsters of self-aggrandisement, only a small number of whom come certified as mentally ill or criminal. The first political problem thus being to give these psychopaths a field of play—generally business or government—in which the rules constitute a certain restraint, but not so much as to encourage them to go elsewhere, to who knows what mischief.

This half-baked political sociology was lurking in the back of my mind as the election approached and I wondered, as I frequently do, whether to be bothered to vote. For if the point of any complicated constitutional order is merely to keep otherwise lethal people harmlessly occupied, then any legal outcome serves the purpose. It was difficult, however, to see in any of the earnest candidates and leaders who presented themselves for election—this being Canada, after all—the Macchiavellian monsters of the House of Cards. In the end, as always before, one bent to consider the least bad choices in a field of tarnished and uninspiring parties and programmes.

It came down to keeping out the Conservatives—a tribal matter, a visceral dislike—and so voting strategically. Not very high-minded, but anyway a thing easier said than done. You can’t write on your ballot paper you support candidate A only if there is a threat that candidate B will win, otherwise you would like the vote to go to candidate C. Or anything else of real interest. A vote while holding one’s nose has the same weight as the vote of a fanatical partisan, and pundits will write afterwards about how the voters “chose” such and such an outcome when no one person actually did anything of the kind.

Lars Knutzon as Bent Sejrø in Borgen

The result of the election was, in the event, satisfying. The Conservatives were trounced, humiliated, driven back on their rural redoubts. The Liberals won a majority, returning the Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne, who looks exactly like your grandmother would look if she were a lesbian, and I have a wholly new and more optimistic view of potential engagement in political life. This would be dependent on a reform towards proportional representation, many splinter parties, and coalition government as the norm. My party would be a tiny one, buried somewhere in the centre-left. The leader, if a woman, would look like Ms. Wynne. If a man, he would be a rumpled fellow in brown tweeds and a battered brief case and a perpetually worried look, rather more like one of those characters in Borgen than like anyone in either House of Cards. I would trust this leader to negotiate the best deal for ordinary decency he or she could under shifting and often unforeseeable circumstances, and I would never vote strategically again.