We've all had the experience: you get off the interstate looking for food and are confronted with the choice of food-like commodities at the gas station's convenience store or food-like commodities at one of several fast food joints. It's not what you want to eat but, if you're hungry enough, you'll find the healthiest option among those available.
Politics is a lot like that. In my home town of Carrboro, NC, fresh, local, and organic food choices abound and it is easy enough to elect a progressive to local office. But nationally, we find our choices limited in much the same manner as our options along the interstate. Progressives who've studied our political system and history understand why you can sometimes elect a Dennis Kucinich to Congress and why he will never get far in a presidential race.
Over the past few elections, progressive voters have had the choice of supporting a single, high-profile third-party/independent candidate, Ralph Nader. This year, Nader is running as an independent and the Green Party ticket is headed by former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. While the choices are perhaps more tempting, supporting either of these candidates this year would be a big mistake for the Left.
Those on the Left understand that, in 2000, Nader did not cause Al Gore to lose to George Bush. Gore did that all on his own. Nonetheless, Nader and his Green Party strategists made a tactical error in 2000 when they brought the campaign to the close, battleground states in the waning days. The narrow victory that the Supreme Court handed to Bush in Florida casts Nader's 90,000+ votes there in bright relief. New Hampshire was another state where Nader's vote total was far in excess of the Bush margin of victory.
Nader also did a disservice to his supporters and to the nation by arguing that there was no difference between Bush and Gore. Eight years later, we know that there was a big difference in such areas as war and peace, government regulation, civil liberties, court appointments, rule of law (and international law), environmental policy, and more. These are differences that have had serious consequence for the well-being of Americans and of people around the world.
Supporters of McKinney and Nader will correctly point out the many issues on which their candidates stand out: universal healthcare, a reduction in the military budget, an end to the death penalty, over-turning of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, an end to the drug war and its handmaiden, the prison-industrial complex, full equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, etc.
But the fundamental reality is that neither McKinney nor Nader will come close to the 2% of the vote Nader received in the 2000 election. What they might achieve is winning enough votes in a key state to tip the race to the Republicans. That would be a tragic outcome.
In 2000, the economy looked strong and the nation was at peace. Progressives, unhappy with Bill Clinton's various turns to the right, were looking for an alternative. Few imagined Al Gore losing the race or the Supreme Court taking a close victory from the hands of Gore and handing it to Bush. Eight years later, we see how short-sighted that evaluation was. The risk is even greater this year. With major domestic and foreign policy challenges already facing the United States, we can not risk placing our government in the hands of a deregulator and saber-rattler like John McCain.
Barack Obama, though a moderate on most issues, is the only candidate who holds out the hope to move the country forward. Progress, however scant, on a host of issues, is desperately needed, as are regulatory agencies that will actually regulate and Supreme Court justices who will uphold civil liberties.
Supporting Nader or McKinney this year is a luxury we cannot afford. We live in a time when small differences are amplified and the differences between Obama and McCain (to say nothing of Palin) are significant. For the progressive voter there is no responsible alternative in 2008 other than wholeheartedly supporting Barack Obama.