The New Yorker just ran a 4,200-word endorsement of Barack Obama. It began: "Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching...."
Moreover, the magazine intoned, seldom if ever has the choice facing the electorate been as urgent or as stark. On a host of issues - the economy, the environment, the war in Iraq, the Supreme Court, international relations - the two major party candidates are worlds apart, with McCain representating a continuation of the Bush presidency and Obama the potential to "reverse our country's image abroad and refresh its spirit at home."
Jon Hain isn't buying it. The co-owner of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse in Madison plans to cast his vote for Ralph Nader, this year running as an independent.
"Obama and McCain are both alike on almost all of the issues important to me," he says. McCain wants to win in Iraq; Obama supports some troop withdrawals but would accelerate the war in Afghanistan and maybe branch out into Pakistan. Both favor what Hain calls "Empire as usual."
Hain agrees that Obama's picks for the Supreme Court and federal bench would be more to his liking. But he's aghast that Obama sided with Justice Scalia's minority view that child rapists should be subject to the death penalty. Among other things, Hain says this removes the incentive for these rapists to not, tragically, destroy the evidence.
Moreover, Hain thinks Obama has consistently caved in to corporations. For instance, Obama promised to help filibuster a bill to retroactively protect telecoms that facilitated illegal spying, then ended up voting for it.
"He plays his supporters for suckers," says Hain. Nader, in contrast, has "a 40-year history of being on the side of the people against corporations."
Brenda Konkel takes a similar view, but backs a different third-party contender: Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party.
"I'm not throwing my vote away," says the Madison alderperson and tenant advocate. "I'm voting for the person whose values are closest to mine."
Konkel likes some of Obama's stands and thinks he'd do better than the Republicans to help working people - but not nearly as much as his supporters hope.
"People are going to be let down," she assumes, no doubt safely. "And when that happens, there has to be a third party they can go to." For her, this is the Greens.
Konkel has met McKinney, a former member of Congress. She admires her views on race and gender and for standing up to fellow Democrats, as when she called for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. (Democrats, says Konkel, responded by helping Republicans oust McKinney from office.)
I ask Konkel how she would feel if McCain/Palin won by a narrow margin - so narrow that Obama would have won had the votes for Nader and McKinney swung his way.
She laughs, having heard such questions countless times before. "So I should vote for the lesser of two evils instead of the person who shares my values?"
Not Konkel. "If the Democrats want my vote," she says, "they have to have values I agree with. So far they don't."
Rolf Lindgren would be down with that. The Middleton resident, formerly vice chair of the state Libertarian Party and chair of its Dane County chapter, was at first attracted to Barack Obama. He got over it.
"His troop pullout plan is so watered down it's hardly any different from McCain's," grouses Lindgren, "and he just voted for the bailout bill." A mortgage broker by profession, Lindgren figures the feds could have halted most foreclosures with $30 billion in direct aid to homeowners, rather than $700 billion to financial institutions.
Plus, Lindgren notes, neither major party candidate has raised a whimper of protest against the war on drugs: "There's still more people being arrested for drugs right now than 15 years ago."
So Lindgren is backing Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party standard-bearer. He says Barr has "a good chance to break the Libertarian vote record," which would help buoy the party's future prospects.
"A month from now, the election will be over but the Libertarian Party will still be going," says Lindgren, who is now running the campaign of a Libertarian candidate for Congress. "I see voting as a long-term investment, not just a short-term choice."
I confess, I've sometimes voted for third-party presidential candidates, including Nader in 2000. I agree with the critique of the two-party system advanced by third-party advocates.
Of course McCain would serve the interests of the rich and not the middle class; that's what Republicans do. Of course Obama will disappoint anyone who votes for him expecting fundamental reform; that's what Democrats do.
The differences between my ideal of America and what either party offers are vast. But so are the differences between the parties.
It's sometimes said that people who vote for third parties are making the perfect the enemy of the good. They want the ideal so much they won't accept the closest realistic approximation.
Funny, they don't seem to do this with their own picks. While Konkel agrees with McKinney "95%" of the time, she admits there's one issue that "drives me batty." It concerns McKinney's take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: "She claims 5,000 people were murdered and their bodies were dumped."
Lindgren, too, has disagreements with his guy. Barr "stupidly" refused to join other third-party contenders in a press conference, organized by Ron Paul, seeking to advance common interests. And he's not said a word about U.S. complicity in the 9/11 attacks - "he won't even say we should have an investigation."
Nader, for his part, has consistently shown he's more interested in promoting himself than building a third party.
Poetic justice would be if these fringe contenders got elected. They'd betray their supporters just as surely and twice as fast as any major party candidate.
But there's one good counterargument: Progress does happen in the rhetoric politicians spout to get elected. Both Obama and McCain promise changes in energy policy, improvements in health-care availability and stricter federal oversight of Wall Street. They may fall short of meeting these goals, but it's good they're setting them.
I mention this to Jon Hain, and he doesn't miss a beat: "That's because there are candidates like Nader out there reminding people there are alternatives."