I didn't vote in my first presidential election.
It was 2000. I'd just turned 21. I'd voted in the primary, for former NBA star and New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, whose Northeastern cerebral style appealed to me, sort of like Jed Bartlet from The West Wing. But he lost. Al Gore won the primary, and I just wasn't all that into him.
I was a student at the University of Central Florida but registered at my parents' home in Palm Beach County. So I needed to vote absentee or switch over my registration. I was politically engaged – a poli-sci minor writing about politics for this very newspaper, in fact – but that whole process seemed like a lot of work. Too much work, given my middling feelings toward Gore and my gut certainty that America wouldn't be so stupid as to elect that bumbling fool from Texas. Besides, what's one vote in a state of millions?
I didn't vote.
Across Florida, 537 other Democrats didn't vote either. That, along with Republicans' post-election chicanery, was enough to push George W. Bush over the top in Florida and give him the White House. Another 97,000 progressives voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader – not a lot in the grand scheme, but again, it was more than enough to alter the course of humanity. One calamitous terrorist attack, two wars – including one sold to us under blatantly false pretenses – economic collapse and the drowning of a major American city followed, along with a host of smaller but no less egregious offenses, things like Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and radical Supreme Court appointments and tax cuts for the rich and an open contempt for science and climate change warnings.
All of that, because I and a few hundred other progressive-minded folks decided our votes weren't all that important, or that Gore was too unexciting, or that we would stand up to the corporate political duopoly and throw in with Nader even though we knew he had no chance of winning.
Needless to say, I've voted in every election since. Sometimes I've written checks or knocked on doors, too. Because the 2000 election seared into my brain that these things have consequences, that staying home or pissing away a protest vote could actually matter, that elections, in the American system, are choices between candidates A and B, not candidate A and Perfection. It's an imperfect system, granted. But it's the one we've got.
This is a fact: Come Jan. 20, one of two people will take the oath of office. That person will not be Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. That person may very well be Donald Trump, who could sneak into office – like Bush, despite not having a majority – if enough Florida voters stay home or vote third party.
We see this dynamic in the polls. Take the recent Upshot/Siena College survey that came out Monday. Among registered Florida voters, Hillary Clinton is up 4 points in a four-way race. Among likely voters – which the poll determined based on the respondent's voting history and stated intent to vote – she's up only 1. Or take last week's Quinnipiac and New York Times national polls, which both found that more than a third of voters under 30 were planning to vote third party.
Not coincidentally, these people were all in middle school (or younger) when apathy and Nader gave us Bush.
A bit late in the game, Clintonworld has realized that it has a problem. Last week it began dispatching Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Chelsea Clinton to battleground states, targeting younger voters who supported Sanders in the primary and, after he lost, relegated themselves to the sidelines, convinced that there's little difference between the candidates, the system is corrupt and the elites need to be taught a lesson.
A lot of Floridians thought the same way in 2000. Look where that got us.
Dubya, for all his bumbling idiocy, was not Trump. Bush lied us into war and FUBARed the response to Hurricane Katrina, yes, but he still never descended to Trump's levels of mendacity and racism, as epitomized in the recent birther nonsense. He didn't signal affection for authoritarian strongmen. He didn't try to deport everyone whose skin is a shade too brown. He didn't attack American Muslims and the disabled. He didn't have campaign reporters arrested or threaten to sue the New York Times over stories he didn't like. He didn't call women "fat pigs" and the like. He had some semblance of basic human decency, a trait with which Trump does not appear to be afflicted.
Trump's election, to say the least, poses a clear and present danger to world stability and our way of life. If you care about the future more than a nostalgia for a simpler, whiter past, it's your duty to defeat him, to drive this ideological scourge out of the mainstream and into the dustbins of history, once and for all.
Jill Stein won't do that. Gary Johnson won't do that. Voting for them will only help elect Donald Trump, nothing more. Sorry, but it's true.
You don't have to like Hillary Clinton. God knows she has her faults (though, you try spending two decades in an unrelenting partisan meat grinder and see if you emerge unscathed). She tends toward secrecy and interventionist foreign policy and, like Gore, very much embodies the corporatist Democratic establishment. She – also like Gore – is wooden and uninspiring on the stump.
But she at least acknowledges that climate change is real and that we can remake immigration laws without ripping families apart. She would maintain and maybe expand the Affordable Care Act – having endorsed the public option – and she proposed an aggressive college-affordability plan. Most important, she would appoint Supreme Court justices more in the mold of Ruth Bader Ginsburg than Antonin Scalia, which means your vote in November will shape decisions on civil rights and privacy and abortion for decades to come.
Hillary, of course, likely offers a continuation of the status quo. If she's successful, she'll build off the progress of the Obama era. If she's not, if she doesn't nudge the country forward, she'll lose in four years anyway. But considering the stakes, even that is better than the alternative. And really, there's only one alternative.
Had I and 536 other progressives not given in to cynicism and apathy 16 years ago, the world would almost certainly be a much better place. Don't repeat my mistake.