Your vote for a major party almost certainly will not matter. There is another way.
This is the year of the lesser evil. Some such counsel has been repeated over and again to Sanders-affected Democrats and Trump-averse Republicans. Think of our democratic norms under Donald J. Trump. Think of our Supreme Court under Hillary Clinton. Third parties merely siphon off support from those most sympathetic to your cause, which is fatal in a political system in which the party with the most votes wins all. As Gail Collins wrote recently in The New York Times, third parties are a cop-out, a kind of sham vote that accomplishes nothing. Accept the inevitable, join the coalition, hold your nose until you are blue in the face (or red) and vote your more practical conscience.
This is almost exactly wrong. It is not just the idealist but also the realist who spurns the major parties. The problem with the practical argument for a major-party vote is that it assumes that your vote matters, in the sense that your vote might tip the election. But your vote does not matter, not in that sense.
There are 50 states and the District of Columbia with votes in the Electoral College; most of these are so Democratic or Republican that their outcomes are already decided. There are a dozen or so battleground states, but most are sufficiently blue or red that they will be close only in cases when the opposing candidate already has a majority of electoral votes. There are only two or three—in 2012 it was Colorado; this year it looks to be Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio—that can plausibly be regarded as tipping-point states that would give a candidate his or her 270th electoral vote and thus the presidency.
It is not just that your vote does not matter; it is that we know it does not matter. The accuracy of poll-based forecasting has been getting better: Nate Silver was famously vilified by Republicans for steadfastly predicting a win for President Obama during the 2012 campaign; he was just as famously vindicated when he predicted every state correctly. By the eve of the election, we will have a pretty good idea whose votes will decide the thing: the likely voters in the two or three plausible tipping-point states who are not already strongly committed to one of the parties. These are the kingmakers. If you have not been inundated with Clinton promotionalia by then, you’re not one of them. (Trump’s self-promotions are, alas, inescapable.)
When your vote cannot decide the outcome, the solution is not to skip voting altogether—as Charles Péguy quipped about Kantianism, this has clean hands because it has no hands—but to look elsewhere. The problem with not voting is the same as the problem with voting for a major party: it does very little to signal your actual views. Did you discard your ballot in lament over what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called our “new Dark Ages,” or did you just forget it under a deluge of junk mail? Are you voting for Democrats because they support welfare programs even as you are deeply troubled by their pro-choice positions, or have you made your peace with their entire platform?
One way to signal your views, and indeed do more than signaling, is to involve yourself in the sausage-making. Advocate about policy; militate for the pro-life Democrats. But this is not the vocation of all. For the rest of us, the most we can do is vote, and the most we can do with our vote is give it to a candidate who more nearly hews to our views. If enough of our fellow travelers do the same—imagine the Catholic left and the Catholic right both throwing in for something like the American Solidarity Party this election—the cumbersome beasts on both sides may yet pay us some heed.
It is true that this advice can be generalized only so far. If enough people heed it, the polls themselves will shift, the number of unaffiliated voters will go up, and the forecasts will lose some of their certainty. The major parties might become practicalities once again. But this will depend on what, in fact, happens. And that is precisely the point: Voting is a strategic action that is heavily dependent on facts on the ground. It is no condemnation of third parties to say that even the best of them do not deserve our vote in all scenarios, even if one of them deserves our vote this time. To avoid third parties because one is worried about their excessive success is to flout the very warning we hear constantly against them: that they are impractical. Who is the idealist, the one who votes as the country actually is or the one who votes to avoid some imagined pluri-partied land?
Nor would a shift toward stronger third parties represent a real loss. The forecasting might be harder, the political equilibriums more dynamic, but what of it? Those with no easy home in one of our two grand coalitions—and those whose home cuts across the two coalitions in complicated ways—would be much better served.
Space would be made to work policy out from our deeper commitments and not from commitments bracketed at the start by the necessities of compromise. Political catechesis could proceed from our first principles, with Leo XIII precedent over Ayn Rand and John Rawls and even James Madison. Identities could more nearly track the nature of things, and the “Catholic” before “Democratic” or “Republican” could become more than just adventitious—perhaps even more than just adjectival. Catholics left and right could better represent a mediating force across a polarized landscape: mediating because they are rooted in the same soil, even if the subtleties of prudence send them branching in different directions. So also with other communities of principle currently riven by partisan divides. The coalitions would not disappear, but they would be more co-allied than coalesced. It is no great loss if our politics becomes less predictable; it would be a great gain if they became less tribal.
There are some few who should pay no heed to this advice, then: those who find themselves kingmakers in this election, those who have already colored their Catholicism with the major party hues, those who have been called to hue their fellow party-goers with some Catholic color in turn. But if you live in California; if your Catholicism is less comfortable with the Americanist compromises; if your calling is too full to find time to do more than just vote—if, in other words, you are almost all of us almost all of the time, then there is no wisdom in going blue in the face with the lecturing of the Democrats or red with the rage of the Republicans. Vote different. Vote better. It may not matter very much; it will matter a little bit.