I’d thought little about Ralph Nader’s potential electoral impact until I read recent polls suggesting he was drawing 3% among likely Ohio voters, 4% in Nevada (plus 1% for Cynthia McKinney), 3% in Pennsylvania, and 5% in Missouri. This means he might once again help tip an election.

Most of Nader’s supporters suggest their votes won’t make the critical difference. Or explain “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Or list Obama stands they disagree with, some of which I disagree with as well.

But let’s assume that the current election still hangs in the balance: that between Republican voter suppression, last-minute attack ads, latent racism, and the uncertainties of turnout among new registrants, McCain and Palin just might be able to win. If you’re a Nader or McKinney supporter, I’d like to address this article to you, and ask how you’d feel if, by not voting for Obama, you ended up helping electing them.

You may believe that America and both parties are dominated by a corporate oligarchy. I wouldn’t completely disagree. You’ll probably point out when Democrats (and sometimes Obama) have supported dubious policies backed by these interests, and those examples anger me as well. But after eight years of Bush, it’s a dangerous game to assume there’s no significant difference between McCain and Obama.

If McCain continues (or even accelerates) disastrous Bush policies that Obama would reverse, that matters. It matters that the Obama campaign has engaged people in a way that could launch a major rebirth of progressive organizing—one that could continue long past the election. Electing Obama also stops a Republican consolidation of power that’s fundamentally undermined American democracy—a consolidation that more than a few Nader supporters have called “fascist,” though it’s not a word I tend to use. So yes, far too many Democrats facilitated the abuses of the past eight years. But given that our president will end up being either Obama or McCain, this question is who will be mostly likely to reverse these trends, and who will create the most favorable landscape for positive progressive change. Here are some key areas of difference:

The Courts. Federal courts can overrule practically any progressive initiative or authorize any regressive one. The Supreme Court justices McCain most admires have consistently extended unchecked corporate and executive power whether voting on torture, reproductive rights, Tom Delay’s midnight Texas redistricting, the ability of workers to sue their employers (or for workers to join a union), or the massively disenfranchising Indiana voter ID laws. With three likely Supreme Court retirements in the coming four years, McCain would be able to create obstacles to progressive change for a generation.

Sarah Palin. Can you say theocracy, with a major dose of ruthlessness? Do we really want someone a melanoma away from the presidency who won her small-town mayor’s race by claiming her opponent was soft on abortion and wasn’t a true Christian, fired the local officials who’d backed him, and later fired the head of the Alaska state patrol for refusing to fire her ex-brother-in-law? Since her convention speech, Palin’s embodied every character assassination scenario from the past 30 years. If you want a leader who whips up “real Americans” against dissident allies of terrorism, she’d do Dick Cheney proud.

Labor Rights. Led by unions like SEIU and the United Steel Workers, we finally have a resurgent progressive union movement—one that raises broader social justice issues and builds broader coalitions, like with major environmental groups. But Bush’s National Labor Relations Board has created obstacle after obstacle for union organizing, including the key “Kentucky River” ruling (upheld by the Bush Supreme court) that employers could challenge the right of employees like nurses to join unions because they acted as supervisors. Obama’s approach would be very different, both from his own experience working with unions in Chicago and from the self interest of empowering and broadening his support base. Given the labor movement’s key role in pretty much every effort for progressive change in America’s history, the shift from hostility to supportiveness would be huge.

Taxation and Health Care. Obama’s redistributes resources downward, McCain upward. I’d like Obama to go further. But McCain wants to make Bush’s disastrously regressive tax cuts permanent, while Obama has explicitly focused on challenging tax breaks for companies like Exxon and on having the wealthiest pay a greater share. He’s called the election a referendum on thirty years of failed trickle-down politics. While he doesn’t go as far as you or I might want, it’s the right direction.

On health care, McCain’s approach gives total power to the insurance companies and gives companies that do provide insurance every incentive to dump all but the healthiest of their workers from the rolls. I’d prefer single payer, but Obama’s plan would be a huge step forward in the number of people covered and the affordability of care, McCain’s a vast step backwards.

Reproductive Rights. It’s abstract unless you or someone you know is unwillingly pregnant. McCain’s explicitly backed overturning Roe vs Wade, and Palin and the Republican platform would support making abortion illegal even in cases of rape or incest.

Global Climate Change. Although McCain acknowledges our role in creating it, Palin who embraces the Exxon-funded skeptics (not to mention “Young Earth” creationism). This spring, McCain refused to be the deciding vote that would have ended a Republican filibuster on a bill eliminating tax breaks for the oil companies and using the money to fund alternative energy. While progressives will have to push against Obama’s receptivity to the coal and nuclear industries, he still goes far further than any major presidential candidate in pushing green jobs as a centerpiece of his platform, while McCain supporters are left with “Drill baby drill.”

Iraq. I wish Obama would pledge to get out more quickly. But he did speak out against the war before it happened, as part of an anti-war rally that any of us would have been proud to attend. And given that he was about to run for Senate, that wasn’t a safe or easy choice. He also does at least have a withdrawal time-table. In contrast, McCain, who helped lead the neo-con charge to invade Iraq since well before 9/11, talks of an indefinite occupation and jokes about “Bomb Bomb Iran.” It’s another area where we’ll need to push, but also another huge difference.

Campaign of Fear. Do you really want to reward yet another Republican campaign based on lies and fear? That’s what the McCain/Palin campaign is reduced to. Pure slime, from Bill Ayers and “palling around with terrorists,” to Rashid Khalidi and “socialism.” If McCain loses, maybe we’ll get a different politics. If he wins it’s Karl Rove on infinite replay.

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But the differences go beyond particular issues to how the respective presidencies would shape a broader context for progressive change. It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s community organizing background. But three years in south Chicago neighborhoods, plus several more representing the same community groups, is a serious involvement whose legacy has shaped Obama’s campaign in a powerful way. No previous president has been a community organizer, or anything close to it. No major party campaign has encouraged supporters to act with as much autonomous initiative. And none since Roosevelt have brought as many new people into politics--people who represent a huge potential voice for ongoing progressive change. When Obama consciously asks volunteers to think of themselves as connected with a tradition that goes back to the abolitionist, union, suffrage, and civil rights movements he gets them thinking not only about a single campaign, but about their long-term ability to join together to shift America’s history, and that, unleashed, can be a powerful force.

It’s a force we can work with not only to help pass Obama’s legislation, but also to push him to take stronger stands. Those newly mobilized might just play a role akin to civil rights movement participants who worked to get Kennedy and Johnson elected, then set their own agenda, dragging Kennedy and LBJ into overcoming initial resistance and taking genuinely courageous positions --like LBJ staking all his political capital on civil rights and voting rights bills that he acknowledged would lose the Democrats the south for a generation. Going back further, progressives turned out to elect and reelect FDR, but also organized unions, occupied factories, worked block by block in their communities, and fought in every possible way to create an autonomous voice. Progressives can do the same with Obama, so long as we keep speaking out after the election and working to engage those who supported him. Given the massive ability of a president to shape the national agenda, I’d rather fight for the Obama proposals I support and push him further in areas where he falls short, than spend another four years trying block an endless succession of horrific Republican initiatives. You may think the election’s already won, so your vote won’t make a difference. That may be true in California, New York, and Illinois, but as in 2000 and 2004, Nader’s campaigning in states most at risk, with an effort in every major swing state and a final week’s focus on Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Obama’s four or five point lead in key battleground states is certainly better than being five points down. But if you knock out two or three percent for voter suppression, two or three for last-minute slime ads and potential racial backlash, and two or three because not all the new voters will show up, he could still well lose the election. As Tom Hayden points out in the Progressives for Obama blog, “Kerry won Wisconsin in 2004 by 0.38 percent, New Hampshire by 1.37 percent, Pennsylvania by 2.5 percent; he lost Iowa by 0.67 percent, New Mexico by 0.79 percent, Ohio by 2.11 percent and Nevada by 2.59 percent.” As someone supporting or considering supporting Nader or McKinney, you could well make the key difference.

Even assuming Obama does win, the margin of his victory will be key to his leverage following the election. Wavering senators or congressional representatives aren’t going to add in third party votes when they decide how far to go to support (or improve) Obama’s initiatives. But the more he wins by, the more mandate he has for shifting America in a fundamental direction from everything Bush has represented.

Maybe none of this matters to you. Maybe you feel, “the worse the better.” and are gleefully cheering as American (and global) capitalism melts down. Maybe you like the idea of dancing at the apocalypse, and assume that the revolution will follow. But crashing empires get ugly. Real people get hurt and even die—witness Katrina. Add in climate change and a McCain administration would mean gambling with global catastrophe.

It may feel pure to vote for a candidate who will never get in power, so will never disappoint us. But this election isn’t about abstract purity. It’s about finally halting a Republican machine that wages preemptive wars, smashes unions, purges African Americans from the voting rolls, puts Exxon in charge of energy legislation, passes over a hundred billion dollars a year of regressive tax cuts, and brands everyone who disagrees with them an ally of terrorism.

Either we stop these trends or we don’t. And the ballot’s the most direct way to do this. If we place all our hopes in awaiting some future popular uprising, we throw away a concrete opportunity to stop the disastrous path of the past eight years. We also give away a chance to elect someone who has actually been part of our progressive movements, from Obama’s anti-apartheid student activism, through his community organizing, to his speaking out at the Chicago anti Iraq-war rally. We can cast a symbolic vote for Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney. Or vote for Barack Obama and actually help shape the political landscape. It would be a tragedy if because of our own desire for pure and uncomplicated stands, we helped throw away a historic chance to move forward.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See To receive his articles directly, email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles