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Tactical Blunder

As the Presidential race gets close to the wire, progressives are tearing their hair out with indecision. On the one hand, Nader's their guy. No doubt about it. But on the other hand, in many states, a strong Nader showing would likely tip those states to the GOP column - handing the White House to George W. Bush. What is a faithful progressive to do?

Friends of Nader's - like the so-called Nader's Raiders - have urged him to drop out to avoid throwing the election to Bush. Even Nader himself has just finished a "Don't Waste Your Vote" tour, in which he hints that progressives ought to practice so-called (there's that word again) "tactical voting" to avoid a Bush triumph. That, in a nutshell, means that Nader supporters who live in places where Gore has a lock - like his home "state" of Washington, D.C. - can go ahead and vote for the guy they really believe in. But those voters in close states, if the race is still up for grabs, would "tactically" vote for Gore.

Talk about a wasted vote. The whole notion of tactical voting is no more than a sop the two major parties throw to their malcontents to keep them in line. There are several problems with tactical voting, and I'll just address a few here, using Nader and Gore as illustrations.

First, I really can't put my finger on many things that Nader and Gore actually agree on. To me, that means that supporters of Nader who vote for Gore are actually voting for a man they mostly disagree with to deny victory to a man they disagree with somewhat more. Voting for someone you don't agree with - isn't that the very definition of a wasted vote? For those Nader supporters who say that they would rather have a Gore victory than a Bush victory, I suspect they don't really understand why they support Nader or why they don't support Gore, because someone who really believes in either one probably has ample reason to despise the other.

Then there's the fallacy that tactical voting will somehow change the result. No way, I say. Tactical theorists point to states like Washington or Oregon, where Nader's support is greater than the difference between Bush and Gore. If all those folks voted Gore, they plead, he would win the election. But it's just not so. Like I just said, there are a great number of Nader supporters - like the earnest folks over at Monkeyfist - who would rather shave their eyeballs with a rusty blade than vote for Gore. Nader, like Jesse Ventura, appeals to many who would stay home otherwise. Without Ralph in the race, that six, seven, or eight point margin doesn't shift to Gore - it shifts position on the couch and watches the whole thing on TV. (Or perhaps organizes a protest of some sort.) So tactical voting fails there, too.

Finally, tactical voting will effectively kill any alternative movement that advocates it. Third parties are historically most effective at introducing new ideas to the public - like the Reform Party in the 1990's, like the Socialist and Progressive Parties of the first half of the 20th Century. This effect can only occur when the third party threatens the electoral security of the parties in power. In 1992, the Reform Party found a groundswell of support for term limits and balanced budgets, and probably cost President Bush his re-election by taking almost one fifth of the popular vote. Two years later, the Republicans incorporated those ideas into the Contract with America and ended 40 years of Democratic rule.

What's the lesson here? In order to get what they want, Nader supporters have to cost Gore this election. If they engage in tactical voting, the message is clear: progressives have wants and needs, but when the chips are down, they'll fall right back in the party line. As long as they take that approach, the Democrats will take them for granted just like all those other Democratic constituencies who never get what they really want - but never look for an alternative either. Until the Democratic Party learns that it must satisfy its left wing or it will lose, it will continue to leave progressives out in the cold.

Football fans might think of the "prevent" defense, designed to give up a few yards here and there but prevent the "big play." The prevent defense, the saying goes, only prevents your team from winning. The same goes for tactical voting. Voting to prevent the other side from winning only means that your side loses. For progressives, four years of Bush might be unpleasant, but having him as a nemesis would be enormously valuable for grass roots building. Gore, on the other hand, might fool a number of people into believing he's on their side - which would likely be a much greater setback for progressive activists.

The election is now two weeks away. In every state, you'll have at least three or four choices - just about everyone can find at least one they mostly agree with. Tell your government what you want it to do for you. Vote to win.

All blatherings copyright 2000 by the author. All rights reserved. You can look, but don't touch. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's blatherings.

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