THE BLOG
07/29/2016 09:33 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

An Alternate To A Binary Choice?

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

The pay-TV oligopoly has been running ads the unspoken premise of which is "you have a choice" -- meaning, you can choose between cable and the dish. The buried implication is that you have no other choice, that it's a binary decision.

Which comes as news to cord-cutters and bundlers, OTA antenna buyers and people who find other ways to watch TV and video. The choice isn't as binary as it's made to seem.

I bring all this up in the context of the current presidential campaign, in which it's equally in the interests of the two major parties to convince us that the choice in November is starkly, irremediably binary. Otherwise, it's suggested, our vote is wasted or, worse yet, electing the "wrong," "other" candidate. The name of Ralph Nader is hissed threateningly.

Another comparison comes to mind: TINA, the acronym for what the EU has told the "periphery" countries about their forced regimen of austerity. "There Is No Alternative." The Brits, however, just figured one out.

That's a bit stark, but the aim of the binary choicers and the TINAists is the same: to foreclose further thought. So, in defiance of that planned foreclosure, I offer, without advocacy, a thought experiment.

Newly-elected presidents like to bask in the afterglow of their "mandate." A larger majority gives them a rhetorical club with which to, at least during the first 18 months, batter opponents into cowed silence. Republicans always tormented Bill Clinton for having won "only" by a plurality in both 1992 and 1996, thanks to the meddling third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. Did it have an effect on Clinton's governing? We'll wait for his memoir to find out.

But squeakers are nothing to brag about. Yeah, you won, but if it hadn't rained in the Carolinas...

So, given a binary choice between two of the most disliked (per the polls) major-party candidates this side of Zimbabwe, what is one to do? Voting against one just gives a bigger mandate to the other. Not voting just depresses the overall turnout. Voting for a third, or fourth party candidate, especially in a battleground state, could help depress the ultimate winner's majority to a plurality. Especially if voters displeased with the parties' offerings, also voted angrily enough, not returning incumbents, e.g., to produce a tightly divided Congress.

When the lesser of two evils can still, by the logic of the sentence itself, be regarded as kinda evil (both have proudly named, as one of their foreign-policy advisers, a certain Dr. Kissinger), a squeaker might be the best outcome available. It would encourage all the anti-Executive power gears built into our system to work at full strength, dampening the ability of the eventual winner to do his or her worst.

We've heard political journalists and politicians and interest-group leaders bemoan for years the tendency toward paralysis in the federal government. This could be the year that looks like the best alternative--to borrow a Bill Clintonism, a third way in a supposedly binary universe.

There could even be a slogan: "I'm With Gridlock."