Scott Liebertz is right that one essential ethical justification for a refusal to vote for one of the two major party candidates (“Don't get mad, get Evan!”) is that your vote loses all power if one of the parties can take it for granted. That is exactly how social conservatives became, as David French aptly calls us, “the cheapest date in American politics.” In an outstanding essay, “Against Voting for the ‘Lesser Evil,’” Austin blogger Blueberry Town quotes George Orwell: “How can you be an autonomous and free citizen if your franchise is pledged to one machine, without conditions, whatever happens in the course of the election or in the conduct of the argument?”
However, I think that another justification—hinted at but not really developed in the “Against” essay—is even more important this year.
Which candidate wins the election and occupies the Oval Office for four years is not the only thing at stake in a presidential election. The margin also matters; which regions vote which way matters; and so on. Think about how important to our national consciousness—to the story we tell about ourselves—the narrowness of JFK’s victory over Nixon has been, or the width of Reagan’s over Mondale, or the four-party split in 1860, or the South’s switch from favoring Democrats to favoring Republicans in the twentieth century.
In 1992, a highly eccentric and disturbingly erratic (he dropped out of the race and then got back in) Ross Perot took an astonishing twenty million American votes. That mattered for a lot more than just whether Bush or Clinton won the presidency. It did matter for that, of course. But it was also a big sign of trouble—of the failure of both parties to offer the voters something they felt deserved their loyalty.
Our votes don’t just shape the formal outcome, they shape history and its interpretation. We should vote accordingly.
Today, every vote cast for someone other than the two major candidates is a vote to preserve our national honor. Of course the very fact of having two such reprobates as our major nominees has already done irreparable damage to that honor. But a day will come, I trust, when the American people—perhaps after having lived for a while with the dark and painful consequences of politics without honor—seek a restoration.
When that day comes, our national honor will be a lot easier to restore if, today, twenty million people vote against the two major nominees rather than, say, two million. What will it say about us if honorable alternatives to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do not attract as many protest votes as Ross Perot was able to take away from George Bush and Bill Clinton?
Greg Forster is the author of six books and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness.