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What do we do when we vote for a Pres­ident of the United States?

It’s a fair question to ask our­selves when facing a looming apoc­a­lypse of political dis­course on the national stage. I refer, of course, to what seems to be a pos­sible result of this primary season: Trump vs. Sanders, winner-takes-office, 2016.

There are many voters who would find either option unac­ceptable, a problem poignantly felt in many con­ser­v­ative circles. On Tuesday, Tim Carney of the Wash­ington Examiner added his voice to the chorus of prominent con­ser­v­a­tives who would not vote for Trump even if he receives the Repub­lican party nom­i­nation: “Con­science forbids us to cross some lines,” he wrote. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and radio host Michael Medved agree, not to mention the mul­titude who wrote for National Review’s “Against Trump” issue in January. All this seems con­trary to the ven­erable “Buckley Rule” often cited by con­ser­v­ative writers as a call for mea­sured prag­matism: “the most viable con­ser­v­ative can­didate” deserves con­ser­v­ative support. In our thought exper­iment, Donald Trump should fit this rule, because he is the only somewhat con­ser­v­ative can­didate.

Why the hes­i­tation, then? Taken together, these writers’ state­ments suggest that there is some­thing more important and pos­itive about the votes we cast than simple prag­matism.

Nothing is decided at this point, but the sit­u­ation could provide us an oppor­tunity to step back from par­tisan pol­itics and ask why we think about voting in national elec­tions the way we do.

If we want to form a real judgment about a good and an evil vote, this potential matchup seems to be the perfect way to isolate them and give our voting system a hypo­thetical trial-by-fire. In past elec­tions an imperfect can­didate for the Repub­lican ticket wasn’t enough to prevent dis­sat­isfied con­ser­v­a­tives from picking the obvious lesser of two evils between, say, Romney and Obama. Our hypo­thetical 2016 choice, however, doesn’t seem to admit the same prag­matism, perhaps because voting is not nec­es­sarily what we nor­mally take it to be.

It’s not only that we value the vote because it allows us to change the outcome. Nat­u­rally, we hope to make waves col­lec­tively, but elec­tions on this scale are deter­mined by larger forces than indi­vidual either/or deci­sions at the polls on election day. Besides, we’d still want to vote for a can­didate we feel rep­re­sents us, even if it were over­whelm­ingly clear they would lose. Voting for a can­didate we don’t like is either unac­ceptable or at least a “nose-holding” activity that can only go so far — many con­ser­v­ative voters con­sidered Romney in 2012 or Bush in 2000 imperfect, but not in a way that kept them from voting, unlike a vote for Trump. For many people, there’s some­thing immoral about voting for the Donald that goes beyond the prac­tical result of Pres­ident Trump.

But if our support for a can­didate is simply a private ethical problem, framed in neg­ative terms like these, why do we also reject the pos­si­bility of not voting at all? There is an important, real “result” to voting that goes beyond a win on election night, but isn’t easily reducible to the guilt we feel about punching our ticket for someone who doesn’t rep­resent us.

The first letter of Brutus, an 18th-century American anti-Fed­er­alist, pro­vides some clarity. Brutus describes the potential in a sit­u­ation like our hypo­thetical 2016 race to the bottom, when neither major can­didate can truly provide this rep­re­sen­tation for the voter caught between a wall and a socialist hard place, like this: “if they do not know, or are not dis­posed to speak the sen­ti­ments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sov­er­eignty is in a few.”

The winner of a popular election might rep­resent the gov­er­nance of the people (even if they’ve let them­selves “feel the Bern”). However, the voter unable to con­sci­en­tiously support either major can­didate is still left without rep­re­sen­tation.

Carney explains that a nominee, even a losing one, can make rep­re­sen­tative argu­ments in the national public square. This is part of the reason we instinc­tively assign a moral weight to the vote we cast that goes beyond who will hold office on the other end of our choice.

If voting were just the citizen’s mode of manip­u­lating public office, any qualms about a can­didate would be mere sen­timent, and only the cal­cu­lation of the best pos­sible outcome would have any moral merit. But as the thought exper­iment shows, it is still desirable to vote for a can­didate who is sure to lose, the can­didate who rep­re­sents us, and it is unac­ceptable to vote for the embod­iment of the exact inverse, a can­didate who might even count on our vote to attain office, but embodies nothing of our­selves.

Explaining why he doesn’t support Trump even as the most elec­table con­ser­v­ative, Medved wrote that “the sur­vival of a credible con­ser­v­ative alter­native in American political life” is more important than sup­porting a can­didate who is elec­table and only nom­i­nally con­ser­v­ative. Medved refers to the role a can­didate has in expressing our con­vic­tions in pol­itics.

The same rationale is behind Trump’s own support. Behind his appeal is a feeling of dis­en­fran­chisement from estab­lishment pol­itics that Trump’s pop­ulist rhetoric per­fectly embodies. For these voters, sup­porting Trump is rebellion against the rational, inef­fectual system of modern liberal insti­tu­tion­alism that has failed them, as a lengthy CNN inves­tigative report in January demon­strated.
If Trump is not an acceptable con­ser­v­ative can­didate, the only vote worth casting is one that actually rep­re­sents us. Whether we decide, as Alasdair Mac­Intyre did in 2004, that we ought not vote in “a system which presents only unac­ceptable alter­na­tives,” or rather to vote for the fabled “rea­sonable third party,” we should not con­sider our vote “thrown away” or our duty as cit­izens unful­filled, but rather rec­ognize a vote more true to a sig­nif­i­cance that we don’t often take seri­ously enough. If we remember this, we might keep in mind, in all elec­tions, the impor­tance of choosing to vote well, and declining to vote evilly.