The first presidential election I was old enough to vote in was in 1992. I probably would have voted for Clinton if I had voted, but I had just moved to New Jersey to start grad school, and my passion for politics at the time wasn't quite sufficient to motivate me to figure out how to register in time.
I was raised a Reaganite, and when I rejected my parents' religion, I questioned their politics as well, but I hadn't gotten around to thinking hard about it yet. Four years in academia later, I was radicalized to the point of being beyond Clinton.
Sure Clinton wasn't so bad, but I felt like we could do better.
First he caved in to the right with that bizarre "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, then caved to the medical insurance industry and dropped the ball on universal health care. He seemed as quick as any hawk to find military solutions to problems abroad rather than making a serious effort to look for alternatives, and seemed as beholden to wealthy and powerful corporations as any politician.
So I read a few green party articles that talked about how politicians always end up compromising like that, so whichever of the two major parties you choose, you get the same thing -- a politician in the pocket of the powerful, who does both good things and bad according to political expediency. They backed this up with some examples of very progressive measures and appointments under Reagan and Nixon. And comparing Clinton with Bush Sr., it looked like maybe they had a point. Most of my friends agreed with me that Nader was looking like a good choice.
However, while chatting with some friends just before the 1996 elections, I learned that one of my fellow inmates of the ivory tower was planning on voting for Clinton instead of Nader.
"I'm not convinced that Nader would make a good president."
I was surprised by this argument. I paused to think about it for a second, blinked at my fellow student a couple of times in incomprehension, and said to him "Well, he's not going to win!" Duh!!! Hello?
Then I wondered if maybe I was being foolish to cast my vote for a candidate without even having considered the question of whether or not he would make a good president.
But, nonetheless, I cast my symbolic vote for Nader, and Clinton won, and we all continued on our merry way.
Over the next couple of years I moved further to the left, and went so far as to help organize a protest of Clinton's military actions in the Persian Gulf.
This should surprise anyone who knows me because I'm one of the most consensus-seeking, mild-mannered, non-confrontational people you will ever meet. Unsurprisingly, I was pretty upset by the incredibly negative reaction our tiny little campus rally generated even within the university community at Rutgers. That, combined with some ugly infighting among the various groups involved in organizing the thing -- plus the general weirdness of some of the Communist groups involved -- made the whole experience, well, traumatic is the only good word I can come up with for it.
It left me with a strong sense that political activism is vital to a functioning democracy, however I personally will never participate in it ever again.
The next election rolled around in 2000, and I didn't know much about Gore except that he appeared to be as much of a hawk as Clinton, if not more so. Continuing to support Nader seemed like a good way to push for radical change while (sort of) working within the system.
My number one issue was promoting a constitutional amendment for election reform. I'm not totally certain any of the candidates were on program with me, but Nader seemed to be the closest.
The framers of the constitution never meant for the president to be chosen in a national popular election. However, more than two hundred years of precedent have shown that essentially nobody agrees with the founding fathers on this point, so maybe -- just maybe, mind you -- it might be a good idea to take a critical look at the system they designed to prevent and replace the popular presidential election, namely the electoral college.
The state-by-state winner-take-all system (as opposed to, say, a general instant-runoff election) guarantees that for a big part of the population a vote for your favorite (third-party) candidate is essentially equivalent to a vote for your least-favorite (major-party) candidate. And what kind of democracy is that? Election reform is critical in order to allow alternative voices to organize and bring issues to the public stage without having to spend all of their time fighting the (accurate) accusation that they're kind of helping their worst enemies...
And while we're at it, why not throw in some campaign finance reform, just for fun?
At that point, I'd finished my Ph.D. but hadn't quite left academia -- I was living in university housing in Princeton. As I cast my vote for Nader, I knew there was essentially no chance that Gore would lose New Jersey. But as the results started coming in, I was astonished that Bush Jr. had made any kind of good showing at all anywhere.
I remembered Dan Quayle testing the waters of candidacy, and -- as far as I could tell -- he had been laughed off the stage for his ridiculous gaffes. Since Bush Jr. had demonstrated himself to be (if anything) even stupider, I figured he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected. After all, I reasoned, even stupid people will say "Maybe for our leader we should choose someone who's not an idiot..."
Clearly I was spending way too much time in my ivory tower when I should have been taking a page from P. T. Barnum.
To be continued...