Here we are again. It's the quadrennial Presidential charade.
Every four years, progressives, leftists, or whatever we are--you know, the people who read The Progressive, The Nation, and In These Times, who go to political forums and demonstrations, who advocate and work for social justice--debate seriously, sometimes heatedly, among ourselves about which of the two major evils is really lesser. Of course, we know from the outset that the Republicans are generally more frightening, so the debate really always comes down to whether to support the inadequate Democratic nominee or some more or less quixotic third party initiative.
This debate has occupied our attention through every Presidential election season since 1980, when Barry Commoner ran as the candidate of the Citizens' Party and John Anderson ran as a mass-media-generated hologram. Then came the two Jesse Jackson Potemkin insurgencies for the Democratic nomination. In 1992, the debate flagged in the absence of any but the most chimerical and obscure third party alternatives; however, it persisted as a frequently expressed wish for some ideal progressive candidate on a horse. Then, in 1996, came the weirdness of Ralph Nader's noncampaign under the Green Party label, sort of.
This year, given that the stakes are so low, the intensity of the debate seems particularly queer. Why get so exercised about a race between avatars of two parties that are less distinguishable than they have ever been? I fear that the answer to that question is that we have internalized our defeat and accommodated perversely to our marginalization in American politics.
I should make my own views on the matter clear at the outset. I'm voting for Ralph Nader. However, I believe that a vote for Nader, a vote for Gore, or not voting the top of the ticket at all are equally defensible--and identically consequential.
I was too young to vote in 1964, but I remember feeling back then that I couldn't wait to be twenty-one in 1968 so that I could cast my ballot for LBJ and the Great Society. Well, a thing called the Vietnam War happened along the way, and I was one of those scornful radicals who couldn't bring themselves to vote for its continuation under Humphrey, who, moreover, was retreating from domestic social policy commitments, as well.
To this day, baby boomers argue over whether the radicals' defection cost Humphrey the victory.
In 1972, I voted for McGovern, even though he had begun backing away from his progressive program five minutes after he won the nomination.
In 1976, I couldn't bring myself to vote for Jimmy Carter. I knew him as a conservative Georgia governor who had risen to national visibility as a spearhead of the Stop McGovern movement at the 1972 Democratic convention. I boycotted that Presidential race.
In 1980, I voted for Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primary and was a delegate to the Citizens' Party convention and a Commoner elector.
In 1984 and 1988, I supported neither of Jesse Jackson's self-promotional escapades for reasons that I've laid out elsewhere (see my books The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, Yale University, 1986, and Stirrings in the Jug, University of Minnesota, 1999). In the general elections, I held my nose and voted for Mondale and Dukakis.
In 1992, I worked in Tom Harkin's short-lived campaign. On election day, I agonized in the booth for what seemed like minutes before voting for Bill Clinton, which I did partly out of not wanting to feel implicated in a possible Bush victory and partly because not voting a straight Democratic ticket would have required casting nearly 100 individual votes for Cook County judges and water district commissioners and the like.
By 1996, the Clinton Administration had proven to be worse than I and others had even feared, and the crowning outrage of welfare "reform" made absolutely certain that I would never again vote for any Clinton for anything.
So I guess you could say that I've been all over the lot on the third party issue. Neither have I been slavishly committed to supporting whatever option the party throws up nor have I dismissed the idea of voting for Democrats as a matter of principle. Although I...