COME NOVEMBER, I'll be voting for George Bush, or so I've been told. I find this bit of news depressing, even if it's not altogether true. What I really intend to do this time around is the same thing I did four years ago: cast my vote for Ralph Nader. But, as I've said, I've been alerted to a particularly harsh form of electoral alchemy through which--hey, presto!--my Nader vote will be instantly transmogrified into a Bush vote.

The formula behind this democratic abracadabra--or what The Nation's Barbara Ehrenreich recently called a "playful new postmodern form of politics"--isn't all that complicated, really. It exhibits the simple on/off circuitry of a light switch, so tight and seemingly intuitive is the path of its logic. Boiled down to its most rudimentary expression and stripped of its undercurrents of anxiety and alarm, that logic goes something like this: In the upcoming presidential election, a vote for Ralph Nader will actually be a vote against Al Gore, which in turn will actually prove to be a vote for George Bush le petit. The conclusion to this argument, evidently, is that I should bite the bullet, shelve my convictions, and vote for Gore.

This position, with all its fashionable emphasis on actuality, is a persuasive endorsement of tactical voting. I say persuasive because it appeals not only to my inborn and very American sense of pragmatism; it attempts to seduce the canny strategist in me as well, and likewise flatters my secular faith in the algorithmic precision of political polls and indicators. Tactical voting, in fact, has all the outward trappings of an enlightened engagement with civic responsibility; it evinces foresight, pluck, common sense, and a sophisticated attitude toward unpleasant political realities. It designates one as a tough-minded modern liberal willing to sacrifice personal ideals for the advancement of a cause that is not quite so awful as it might be.

Yet, unless I undergo a monumental change of heart, I'm still voting for Nader.

In order to explain myself, I think it best to investigate the hidden assumptions that give ballast to the argument for tactical voting. As with most political debates, what lies beneath all the punch-drunk rhetoric are conflicting and often unarticulated theories about how democracy could and should function. What I'm concerned about are the ways in which our feelings of personal influence (or lack thereof) over the democratic process, not to mention our deeply held opinions about that process itself, are embodied in two distinct and irreconcilable perceptions regarding the practice of voting--namely, conscientious versus tactical voting. And what most worries me in all of this is the nettlesome idea of "throwing your vote away."

Most folks these days appear to agree that there is something critically wrong with the status of our representative democracy. Individuals ranging all along the modern American political spectrum--unlikely allies in everything but their displeasure--can be heard bemoaning the corporate-dominated two-party system that is de facto monopolistic, plutocratic, unresponsive, and maladministered. At bottom, there is a shared belief that politics has been deeply corrupted, and that the problems are getting exponentially worse over time. Because of this, many people regard the workings of our government with a fatalistic combination of anger and apathy.

Accompanying this general crisis of confidence in political processes is the widely held sentiment that a single, itty-bitty, individual vote is nothing more than a statistical blip in the vast calculus of a rigged outcome. Just as we have no direct say in what makes it to the grocery store's shelves, we feel that we wield no constructive influence over the festival of mediocrity that is the presidential race. By the time we are asked to decide, we secretly suspect that the important decisions have already been made, and that the act of voting is simply a formality. (This is best illustrated by the rash of individuals who recently tried to sell their votes over the Internet.)

This sense of an almost Calvinistic predetermination arises from a more general experience of social alienation, the uneasy feeling of existing merely as a nameless, faceless placeholder in the maze of electronic mass culture. Polls and sound bites have turned campaigning into a contest of ratings and empty posturing, to which we are required to respond in kind. Every time we pick up a newspaper or flick on the television, we are reminded not of our status as effective citizens but as homogenized consumers, and therefore we are systematically shut out of the gritty construction of political reality.

As the perceived realm of our individual influence in the political process shrinks, so shrinks our tenuous faith in the practice of democracy itself; we question whether government represents anything but the most corruptible and wayward aspects of the hoi polloi. In other words, our cynicism regarding the idiotic nature of political discourse leads to an overwhelming suspicion that the electorate (those people over there) is comprised largely of idiots--an ocean of idiots who swallow and regurgitate the party line, a tidal swell of idiots who accept the narrowed parameters of debate, a national audience of idiots laughing along with the laugh track. And so we cling to the abstract ideal of democracy while at the same time feeling that we must somehow protect ourselves against it. Our votes are cast not in the spirit of representation, but with the anxiety of prevention.

So we decry the media, the special interests, the statistical tides and numerical trends, the inherent corruption of the whole shebang--and then, when the time comes to assert our proverbial right of electoral representation, we balk as though it were all a ruse. On the surface of things, a tactical vote may seek to pluck political relevance from the jaws of this democratic despair, but what it accomplishes, in reality, is the exact opposite. Tactical voting is just the kind of compromise needed to keep the game going as is, ad nauseam. In attempting to win the battle, those who vote tactically all but surrender the war.

To put it in terms of the coming election: If the only thing keeping you from voting for Nader is an aversion to a Bush presidency, then you are not only accepting the continuing corruption of the political system, you are giving it your go-ahead. You are also tacitly agreeing that the establishment of a viable third party is all but impossible. The Orwellian aspect of this self-inflicted cycle of defeat is no less ironic for being obvious. The establishment of a viable third party rests solely in people's willingness to break, vote by solitary vote, the chokehold of the two-party system. This will never, ever be accomplished as long as vast numbers continue to vote on a sheerly defensive and reactionary basis. Political and social change is rarely seismic in nature; the long-term construction of political movements is oceanic and cumulative. Nobody--especially not The New York Times or CNN or Sam Donaldson--is going to suddenly shine the magical spotlight of legitimacy on an electable third-party candidate. You might have to "throw your vote away" a couple of times before people really start to take notice.

The reason I'm voting for Nader is that I take the word "representative" seriously. Nader, more than any other candidate, represents my interests; represents the closest approximation to my idea of a responsible, concerned, upstanding politician. I realize, of course, that he doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of being elected to office--and this is why many people who agree with him will ignore his candidacy at the crucial moment. Granted, Bush or Gore will be our next president. I don't care. Despite their putative differences, these two candidates represent the same essential thing to me: career establishment politicians ultimately and deceitfully dedicated to protecting the consolidation of corporate power and the continuing privatization of public social welfare. I cannot conscientiously support either of them; cannot opt for a lesser evil to prevent a greater one.

Democracy needs to be constantly, slowly, steadily rebuilt. This takes sacrifice and patience, an eye on the distant horizon. Tactical voting, in settling for the quick fix, ensures its own repetition: another quick fix in four years, another election where any third party candidate is ghettoized and muzzled. Another election where the question ofrepresentation is obscured by questions of expediency, financing, and lesser evils. Another election where we get the candidates we deserve, rather than the ones we want.