It’s been years since I cared deeply about any election, yet I find myself back to old habits—tracking polls and dealing with those conflicting feelings that emerge this time of year. My sense of deep cynicism, born from years of reporting on government venality and stupidity, collides with my sense of civic duty.

Few people can watch these loathsome campaign ads without thinking that something is wrong with our system. Then again, we know the losers in all the races will concede and go home without unleashing their militias on the streets, as happens in many other countries. Things aren't so bad.

I always hope that a leader will emerge to guide our country, state, or locality to a better political future through less spending and more freedom-oriented policies. Then I get mad at myself for wanting a “leader.” We’re a self-governing people and leaders always disappoint.

“Evans Law,” named after conservative writer M. Stanton Evans is a reminder of why we shouldn’t put much faith in politicians: “When one of our people gets in a position where he can do us some good, he stops being one of our people.” I’ve seen council members in essence switch sides almost immediately after taking office. The few politicians who stick to their guns often end up being ineffective and ignored.

No wonder. Journalist H.L. Mencken argued that “Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods.” It’s much easier being effective as a pillager than as someone who wants to halt the auction.  And yet my loved ones can’t understand the roots of my cynicism.

My idealistic notion that Republicans might actually cut government died shortly into the first Reagan administration. There’s so much to cut. But all those programs have constituencies, and their workers are represented by unions, all of which have enough money to bury any politician perceived as a threat.

Between service on the national debt, the defense budget, and entitlements, the federal government already outspends its income. Even those terms hint at the problem: “servicing,” “defense,” and “entitlements.” Few Americans get much service from paying for money that our government already squandered; much of our military budget is not defensive, and why should any of us feel entitled to a government paycheck?

I don’t believe Mitt Romney will fix anything, but it’s depressing to have a president who believes that the answer to every question has the same 10 letters: "government."

Sometimes, I hope that this year’s fine Libertarian Party ticket (former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and retired California judge Jim Gray) serves as a spoiler in, say, Colorado. If they cost the GOP the election, maybe Republicans will start paying attention to freedom-oriented issues and not just freedom rhetoric. But no one would learn anything, and we’ll all be stuck with another four years with economic policies based on the notion that one can take water from the deep end of the pool, move it to the shallow end (after losing some of it on the sidewalk), and then bump up the water level as a result.

It is difficult to make clear points in elections. Individuals have complex motives and ill-formed worldviews. Good-government types often say we should vote for candidates with the best character. But it gets complicated. Some of the most dangerous legislators are honest ideologues who know exactly what they are doing as they regulate our lives. The cad, Bill Clinton (combined with a GOP Congress), seems to be as good as it gets at the national level—yet another disturbing, election-related thought.

Sometimes the most shamelessly ambitious politicians are the most malleable ones, willing to do the “right” thing if the People put pressure on them. Mencken has it right: “The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.” Having just finished a book about the Puritanical and fanatical Khmer Rouge communists who created the “killing fields,” I see his point.

Then I think of real reformers—San Diego Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait—and that civic sensibility rises again.

At the state level, it is ironic that conservatives have come to depend on the Progressive-era creation—initiative, referendum, and recall—to control modern Progressive politicians, but such are the inconsistencies and ironies of the political system.

The big statewide initiative in California on Tuesday is Prop. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax increase. My best advice: Starve the beast. California’s government outspends its revenue every year, in boom as well as bust economies. The best hope for restoring some fiscal responsibility is to limit the cash politicians have to spend. Brown and Co. promise draconian cuts if you don’t submit to their political blackmail. It’s always best to call a politician’s bluff.

And then there are those darn imperfect choices.

I’d love to see my congressman, Republican Dan Lungren, booted from office because of his long advocacy of civil-forfeiture measures that allow police agencies to take the cars, homes, and other property of people, many of whom have never been convicted of crimes. It has led to countless abuses because it marries police powers with the profit motive. But Lungren’s opponent is a left-wing Democrat who seems to get everything wrong and has not raised this issue. No matter who wins, no message will be sent, no political punishment will be meted out. Oh well.

I hope that if Romney wins the presidency, Americans will be reminded that wealth and the private-enterprise system are good things and should not be the subject of envy and scorn.

Then again, I don’t expect much. No matter Tuesday’s results, I console myself, again, by Mencken: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”