Since the Era of Good Feelings is off the table, we now live in the political Era of the Binary Choice. Launched as part of the Flight 93 argument in support of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, this is the idea that there is no room for conscientious political objectors to sit out an election or cast a protest vote if they don’t like either of the major parties or candidates. Since one of those major parties is going to win, and since the stakes are unprecedentedly high (and they’re always unprecedentedly high), everyone has to choose one candidate or the other.
There is a semi-plausibility to this in the context of a specific election, but since then, the “binary choice” has become a way of life. After Trump was elected, we faced the binary choice of continuing to support him or signing on to the dangerous agenda of the far left.
This doesn’t just come from Trump supporters. If you choose not to sign on to the agenda of the far left and instead to criticize both parties, there are many on the left who will accuse you of false equivalency or bothsidesism. How could you possibly place the tiny little faults of the Democrats in the same category as the grievous and irremediable faults of the Republicans and pretend to balance them against one another?
It is as if everyone has embraced the logic of a classic parody of political partisanship in which we are all herded into voting for “my side” by the horrifying specter of the “other side.” This sort of thing proliferates because it works. Consider a recent focus group of hesitant 2020 Trump voters, most of whom were convinced to pull the trigger by their fear of the excesses of the far left. They were convinced that it was a binary choice.
I recently came across this argument in a particularly interesting variant, by way of the Manhattan Institute’s anti-woke crusader Chris Rufo, who specifically offered this challenge to unaligned voters—centrists and independents and, of course, the real targets here: libertarians and Never Trumpers.
The reality is that we have a two-party, partisan political system that will not change in our lifetime. If you want to advance your agenda, you have to make choices within it—imagining oneself a centrist-transcender is a narcissistic evasion and an abdication of responsibility.
The point seems to be that making choices within the two-party system necessarily means choosing one of the major parties—and doing so irrevocably, because otherwise, if you bounce back and forth, you’re just another smug, narcissistic evader who regards himself above party loyalty.
But what if being above party loyalty is our role? What if one of our choices “within the system” is precisely to play hard to get? And what if that’s what makes the whole system work?
The Two-Party System(s)
There is nothing in the Constitution that mandates, sanctions or even recognizes the existence of political parties. They are arguably against the intentions of the Founders, who agonized over the problem of “faction”—right before they went off and founded the first political parties. Yet the constitutional system created by the Founders tends to summon forth two major parties to serve as broad coalitions organized around the main political fault lines of any particular era.
But the parties and the fault lines have never been set in stone. Within living memory, for example, the Democratic Party was first bitterly divided by the issue of civil rights, then claimed a virtual monopoly on the issue. Throughout America’s history, there have been five or six of what scholars call “party systems,” eras in which major parties settle into a stable arrangement before splitting apart and reforming again as big issues and regional alignments change.
The First Party System was Federalists vs. Republicans. The Second Party System was Democrats vs. Whigs. It wasn’t until the Third Party System in the 1850s that it became Democrats vs. Republicans—though at the time, the Democrats were a Southern party devoted to protecting slavery.
These party systems have usually lasted about 30 to 50 years, and the one we’re in now is somewhere between 40 and 55 years old, depending on whom you ask. It is due to change, and it arguably already is changing, as the Republican Party becomes more oriented to blue-collar and rural voters, more nationalist, more focused on the culture war, and much less committed to free markets.
So the notion that there is anything fixed and eternal about today’s binary choice, that these are the only two possible political alignments and that they can never change, not even within Chris Rufo’s lifetime—he is only 37 and could well live another 50 years—has no historical basis.
The Wars of the Tribes
If political alignments tend to evolve over time, who changes them? Precisely the people who are not committed to either party.
These persuadable independents can take many forms. In the current era, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party was fueled in part by his ability to mobilize a previously unmotivated faction of voters, at the expense of driving away some of the more dominant factions in the party. These new Republican voters—many of whom used to be Democrats—are rural, blue collar and noncollege-educated.
So why can’t others do the same? Why can’t those of us who are not at home in today’s Republican Party also act as factions that are open to being wooed by the existing parties or by a new one?
In fact, the American system only works if we act in precisely this way. Consider a thought experiment. What if literally everyone were the kind of tribal partisan the binary-choice types want us to be, with no independents or swing voters? The whole system would collapse at the next election, if not earlier. Without independent voters or a “middle” to appeal to, politics would simply be a one-time measure of which tribe has the most people.
Consider Jonathan Last’s incisive analysis of this year’s governor’s race in Virginia. It is a close race, but only because of the demographic divisions within the state. Densely populated Northern Virginia leans sharply toward the Democrats, but there are a large number of sparsely populated rural counties that lean even more sharply toward the Republicans. As Last points out, given the uphill battle the Republican candidate faces in winning back suburban voters, the GOP strategy relies on winning the rural counties by increasingly lopsided “Saddam Hussein margins.” It relies on the ability to sort voters along purely tribal lines.
We can already see the problems with this. A two-party system only works if there is a large contingent of uncommitted voters who are winnable by either side depending on leadership, messaging and policy, for whom the parties have to compete. The independents are the ones who force the parties to work to win and then hold them accountable.
If the independents are not there to perform that function—or if the parties are too wrapped up in their own internal fantasy of a binary choice to appeal to swing voters—then these voters are easily captured by ideological fanatics and grifters, and good luck telling which is which. This process is already well-advanced in the Republican Party.
The Real Binary Choice
Following Ayn Rand’s advice, don’t bother to examine a folly; ask only what it accomplishes. Binary-choice thinking is being promoted precisely because it clears the way for fanatics and opportunists and protects them from scrutiny.
This also gives us an idea of why the mere existence of independents sticks in the craw of partisans. Note the frequency of the accusation that we consider ourselves “above” the dirty work of partisanship, that we are indulging in a sense of preening moral superiority, which is then portrayed as narcissism. This is the reproach of a guilty conscience. Partisans know they have sacrificed their principles for the sake of power and resent anyone who doesn’t make the same compromise.
In reality, the only binary choice is right or wrong, not Republican or Democrat. This is the real service performed by independents. They help keep politics grounded in morality—however tenuously—by requiring politicians to appeal to principles or ideals wider than partisan tribalism.
The insistence that we all join one of these tribes is also a lot of futile blustering, because for all the frenetic talk about a binary choice within the conservative movement, in the outside world this is actually an era of declining party identification. The most recent Gallup poll shows Republicans with only 25% direct support, Democrats with 30%—both at or near multidecade lows—and independent voters near a historic high at 44%. The politically nonbinary are a plurality of voters and could soon be a majority.
Arguably, our parties are alienating themselves from the great mass of voters by pandering to factions and fanatics. Independents are open to leaning toward one party or another—they tend to lean toward Democrats at the moment—but they are increasingly wary of throwing in their lot with either party.
You can see what I mean about how we might well be nearing the end of the current party system and moving on to a new one. Yet as its last gasp, the old party system insists that it is eternal and that we have no choice but to accept it.
We don’t. Our role and our choice in the political system is to shape the parties to fit our idea of what is good and right—not the other way around.