Contrary to what you may have heard — and I have heard it many, many times over the last few months — the presidential election is not a binary choice.
You have no obligation to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If you vote for one of the less prominent candidates, or write someone’s name where allowed, or leave the presidential line on your ballot blank, no lightning bolt will fell you and no policeman will knock on your door.
The binarists would have you believe that availing yourself of a non-Clinton, non-Trump option is a kind of escapism, a shirking of your duty to participate in the national choice between the two major candidates. The binarists who are backing Trump say that right-leaning voters who choose Gary Johnson (the Libertarian) or Evan McMullin (an independent conservative) are casting half a vote for Clinton. The binarists behind Clinton make the equivalent argument about left-leaning voters who back Johnson or Jill Stein (who is running for the Green Party) — that such a choice helps Trump.
Since Trump won the Republican nomination, a lot of the intra-conservative arguments that have appeared to be about him have really been about whether citizens should approach the vote as binarists. The pro-Trump arguments less often take the form “he would be a great president” or even “he’s really not that bad” than they do “he’s better than she is, because almost anyone would be.” And almost all of the anti-Trump conservatives who have reluctantly concluded they have to back Clinton have done so on binarist grounds.
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If you accept the binarist premise about elections, both sets of arguments have merit, because Trump is preferable to Clinton in some respects and Clinton is preferable to Trump on others. And because the premise itself has some force, many millions of reasonable people are backing each candidate. But how much force it has depends on the election. It is greater the higher the stakes are in an election, and how close the vote is in a particular state.
Binarism has civic usefulness, too: A voter who believes in picking between the top two candidates will not insist on finding the perfect candidate or boycott elections on the ground that one cannot be found.
But the force of the binarist premise is radically diminished when neither candidate meets minimal standards of fitness for office for reasons of character or policy or both. Judgments about these matters will, of course, vary. In my view, candidates who lack honesty or self-control fall short of those standards. So do those who advocate the deliberate exposure of innocent human beings to lethal violence, including war crimes.
Binarists, even the best of them, almost always end up telling you that you have to cast your vote as though you were in an extremely contrived hypothetical situation: one in which the outcome of the election depends on you and yet you cannot use this awesome power to elevate a McMullin or a Stein to the presidency. Or they end up tying themselves up in knots, as in this essay arguing that not voting for Trump is tantamount to voting for Clinton while somehow “a vote for Donald Trump is not necessarily a vote for Donald Trump himself.”
An alternative to binarism would be to vote based on whether one can in good conscience wish that a candidate becomes president. If both of the top two candidates meet that criterion, vote for the better one; if neither does, then, at least as a general matter, vote for someone else. The two major parties have enough advantages in our system without our giving them a moral veto over other choices that they do not deserve.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”