WASHINGTON — There are few things as enjoyable - or rare - as being able to vote one's conscience. It isn't often that you go into the voting booth and select someone because you believe in them, rather than because they're the lesser of two evils.
Many of the people who will vote for Ralph Nader on Tuesday will do so for this very reason. They will go home, flick on the TV, and watch the results come in with little concern about who wins or loses the presidency.
They are the political equivalent of Chicago Cubs fans. It's not the final score that matters, it's sticking with the team.
As a lifelong fan of more than a few suffering teams, I have a certain respect for the Cub/Nader contingent. Voting for your conscience, knowing it means you have no say in who becomes president, may in some ways be an act of character.
But this year, according to the polls, Mr. Nader is attracting more than just his usual Cub vote. He has run before and never received such high poll numbers.
Nader has gained a kind of snowballing momentum among a whole different contingent of voters. They have come to "blow up the system," to move the Democratic Party back to the left, and Nader is the means to their end.
They want to see Nader reach 5 percent in the final tally Tuesday night so that he and his Green Party can become legitimate players in the American political system. This year's election really isn't about this year, the thinking goes, it's about taking the long view, about remaking politics for future races.
Nader himself has been pushing this view with great verve - or at least as much verve as he can muster - at every campaign stop.
Theoretically, there is nothing really wrong with this idea. The American political system can probably use some blowing up - or at least a good thumping. But there is one rather large problem with using a Nader vote to "blow up the system": It won't work.
If you need proof, look no farther than the other third-party candidate in this show, Pat Buchanan, who is the flip-side of Nader. He ran in 1992 and 1996 with the hope of blowing up the system and moving the GOP to the right.
The end result of all his hard work? George W. Bush, the son of the man Buchanan first ran against - who is (at least in rhetoric) more of a centrist than his father - is the GOP's nominee. And Pat? He's done the impossible. He's made the Reform Party more marginal than it already was.
Candidacies like Nader's and Buchanan's are interesting, but they are doomed to be a sideshow for two main reasons:
First off, if Gore loses this race, it is precisely Nader's supporters - those on the Democratic Party's left wing - who are the most likely to dislike Bush's policies. Four years from now, their protest votes will support the Democratic nominee.
Second, any "blowing up" of the system in a larger sense, like the creation of a real third party, will never be led by someone on the far left or right.
There simply aren't enough Americans who live at the ends of the political spectrum. Any real changes in American politics will come from a centrist candidate with a populist message. And Nader and Buchanan will never be confused with centrists.
All of which brings us back to Tuesday and that conscience vote. Voting for Ralph Nader because you believe in him is one thing. Voting for him to "blow up the system" is another.
In the end, this year's election really is about this year. And you may be "sending a message," but don't expect anyone to be listening.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society