Nader and Tactical Voting: May the Best Man Win

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In two weeks, I'll be voting for George W. Bush, or so I've been told. I find this bit of news depressing, even if it's not altogether true.

What I really intend to do this time around is the same thing I did four years ago — cast my vote for Ralph Nader. But, as I've said, I've been alerted to a particularly harsh form of electoral alchemy through which, presto!, my Nader vote will instantly transmogrify into a Bush vote.

The formula behind this democratic abracadabra isn't all that complicated, really. It exhibits the simple on/off circuitry of a light switch, so tight and seemingly intuitive is the path of its logic.

Boiled down to its most rudimentary expression and stripped of its undercurrents of anxiety and alarm, the logic goes something like this: In the upcoming presidential election, a vote for Ralph Nader will actually be a vote against Al Gore, which in turn will actually prove to be a vote for George Bush le petit. The conclusion to this argument, evidently, is that I should bite the bullet, shelve my convictions and vote for Gore.

This position, with all its fashionable emphasis on actuality, is a persuasive endorsement of tactical voting. I say persuasive because it appeals not only to my inborn and very American sense of pragmatism; it attempts to seduce the canny strategist in me as well and likewise flatters my secular faith in the algorithmic precision of political polls and indicators.

Tactical voting, in fact, has all the outward trappings of an enlightened engagement with civic responsibility — evincing foresight, pluck, common sense and a sophisticated attitude toward unpleasant political realities. It designates one as a tough-minded modern liberal willing to sacrifice personal ideals for the advancement of a cause that's not quite so awful as it might be.

Yet, unless I undergo a monumental change of heart, I'm still voting for Nader.

What I'm concerned about are the ways in which our feelings of personal influence (or lack thereof) over the democratic process, not to mention our deeply held opinions about that process itself, are embodied in two distinct and irreconcilable perceptions regarding the practice of voting — namely, conscientious versus tactical voting. And what most worries me in all of this is the nettlesome idea of "throwing your vote away."

Most folks these days appear to agree that there's something critically wrong with the status of our representative democracy. Individuals ranging all along the modern American political spectrum — unlikely allies in everything but their displeasure — can be heard bemoaning the corporate-dominated two-party system that is de facto monopolistic, plutocratic, unresponsive and maladministered.

At bottom, there's a shared belief that politics has been deeply corrupted and that the problems are getting exponentially worse over time. Because of this, many people regard the workings of our government with a fatalistic combination of anger and apathy.

Accompanying this general crisis of confidence in political processes is the widely held sentiment that a single, itty-bitty, individual vote is nothing more than a statistical blip in the vast calculus of a rigged outcome. Just as we have no direct say in what makes it to the grocery store's shelves, we feel that we wield no constructive influence over the festival of mediocrity that is the presidential race.

By the time we're asked to decide, we secretly suspect that the important decisions have already been made and that the act of voting is simply a formality.

This sense of an almost Calvinistic predetermination arises from a more general experience of social alienation, the uneasy feeling of existing merely as a nameless, faceless placeholder in the maze of electronic mass culture. Every time we pick up a newspaper or flick on the television, we're reminded not of our status as effective citizens but as homogenized consumers, and therefore we're shut out of the gritty construction of political reality.

So we decry the media, the special interests, the statistical tides and numerical trends, the inherent corruption of the whole shebang — and then, when the time comes to assert our proverbial right of electoral representation, we balk as though it were all a ruse.

On the surface of things, a tactical vote might seek to pluck political relevance from the jaws of this democratic despair, but what it accomplishes, in reality, is the exact opposite. Tactical voting is just the kind of compromise needed to keep the game going as is, ad nauseam. In attempting to win the battle, those who vote tactically all but surrender the war.

The Orwellian aspect of this self-inflicted cycle of defeat is no less ironic for being obvious. The establishment of a viable third party rests solely in people's willingness to break, vote by solitary vote, the chokehold of the two-party system. This will never, ever be accomplished as long as vast numbers continue to vote on a sheerly defensive and reactionary basis.

The reason I'm voting for Nader is that I take the word "representative" seriously. Nader, more than any other candidate, represents my interests and the closest approximation of a responsible, concerned, upstanding politician.

I realize, of course, that he doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of being elected to office — and this is why many people who agree with him will ignore his candidacy at the crucial moment.

Granted, Bush or Gore will be our next president. I don't care. Despite their putative differences, these two candidates represent the same essential thing to me: career establishment politicians ultimately and deceitfully dedicated to protecting the consolidation of corporate power and the continuing privatization of public social welfare. I cannot conscientiously support either of them, cannot opt for a lesser evil to prevent a greater one.

Democracy needs to be constantly, slowly, steadily rebuilt. This takes sacrifice and patience, an eye on the distant horizon.

Tactical voting, in settling for the quick fix, ensures its own repetition: another quick fix in four years, another election where any third-party candidate is ghettoized and muzzled. Another election where the question of representation is obscured by questions of expediency, financing and lesser evils. Another election where we get the candidates we deserve, rather than the ones we want.

RICK LEVIN writes for the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, where a version of this column first appeared.

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