11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Protesting Protest Votes

My first presidential election was 1968's, jolly Humphrey vs. vile Nixon.
Campaigning on his secret plan to end the Viet Nam war -- which turned out
to be five more years of brutal conflict -- Nixon was transparently
dishonest; he'd famously told his legal counsel Leonard Garment that Leonard
would never make it in politics because "you don't know how to lie." But to
us anti-war activists on college campuses, it was unthinkable to vote for
Humphrey and his "politics of joy," a feckless attempt to cheer up a country
torn apart by Viet Nam. So I wrote in the name Dick Gregory, the candidate
of the Freedom and Peace Party, which, in one of those priceless internecine
struggles on the left, had broken off from the Peace and Freedom Party. The
brilliant and hilarious Gregory didn't stand a chance but memorably printed
up counterfeit dollar bills with his likeness as campaign collateral.

I came to regret my decision. Nixon was the overwhelming favorite, but when
Election Night showed a race too close to call, I found myself ardently
rooting for Humphrey. Nixon won. And you know the rest.

Fast forward to 2000, when my friend Wendy voted for Ralph Nader. Her
rationale: she was voting in California, a safe Gore state, and she wanted
to protest the Democratic Party's centrist politics. Looking back through
the lens of the Bush catastrophe, she now regrets that decision.

So I thought we'd learned the lesson that third-party candidates spoil
elections. And, indeed, third-party voting has seemed a non-issue this time
around. Their candidates are polling low, and they've been all but ignored
by both the mainstream and the alternative media.

But today I got an email from an old friend who lambasted me for a post in
which I argued for Barack Obama with the passion I'd felt for Dick Gregory
all those years ago. After a moment of terror that he might be for John
McCain, I discovered--in another moment of a different kind of terror--that
he's a full-blown Naderite, equally disgusted with Obama and McCain. He calls
them establishment "tools of the corporations," allowing that Obama is
perhaps a little less bad than McCain, but not nearly worthy of a vote, even
as the lesser of two evils.

Though it's unlikely Nader or anyone else will prevent Obama from getting
elected next week, it's worth examining the Naderist impulse among at least
some progressives, either because (like my friend) they genuinely think he
would be a better president or (like Wendy) he is a convenient vehicle of

It's worthy of note that Wendy learned the lesson: risking nothing, she's now
an Obama activist. Similarly, Nader's supporters would do well to take a
deep breath and look clearly at our cratering economy (a 300-point Dow drop
last Friday was considered a good day) and murderous foreign adventurism.
Given that the Republicans' deregulation chickens are coming home to
roost--probably a roost that once sold in the high sixes but is now in
foreclosure--it's our responsibility to help our country get out of this
mess by supporting Obama.

I think Obama can be a transformative president. But let's say I'm wrong
and stipulate that, like Clinton, he'll govern from the middle. Can anyone
doubt that the thousands of Obama appointees with huge potential to affect
our lives--from Supreme Court justices to cabinet members and agency
chiefs--will be vastly superior in competence and values to those of a
President McCain, or, God forbid, a President Palin? (The New York Times
reported today that Republican-appointed judges now make up 61 percent of
the bench and control 10 of the 13 circuits.)

It's a simple fact that if you vote for anyone but Obama, you may help
McCain win the White House. If you're sick about the last eight years, how
about spending the next four living with that? So let's rally around Barack.
If he's elected, we'll hold his feet to the fire. And even if he
disappoints, his presidency will be infinitely better than the
alternative-and I don't mean Ralph Nader.