Every four years we get together and play American President Idol, electing either a Republican or a Democrat. And, every four years this is when some fringe kook or two tries to tell us about all those parties outside the system, man. The ones who are really woke, as my white ass should probably not be saying, and aren’t corrupt by Big Scaryword.

This year we have the perennial Libertarian candidate, former Republican governor Gary Johnson, unique in the conservative side of the spectrum in that he is qualified for the job. He’s also great if you’re into more private prisons and less oversight of them, good old-fashioned Islamophobia, and an assortment of other ghastly ideas better described by the pen of Mark Ames. Oh, and his position on weed is actually slightly right of Hillary Clinton’s if you look at their actual platforms. Still, the right can and has and currently is doing worse off. Johnson has a possible chance to get on the debate stage this year, but unless the Republican elite decides to all jump ship from their own party, join Johnson, and leave Donald Trump standing alone in the flaming ruins of the GOP, Johnson’s odds of sitting in the Oval Office as anything more than a guest are just slightly higher than my own.

Then there’s the Green Party and Dr. Jill Stein, a woman who brings the illustrious elected experience of being a two-time Lexington Town Meeting Representative and who has decided she wants to be the new queen of vaccine fear-mongering despite being a doctor. In short, she’s completely unqualified, and she’s either dangerously misled or deliberately lying. She is also polling below 4 percent because of course she is.

Between the carnival of carnage that was the Republican primary choosing the form of Gozer the Destructor and the bitter hold out of Bernie Sanders to the end of the Democratic one, emotions on both sides got a little high. I’ve never seen so much announcing that people were voting third party, and every single bit of it is as bloody useless as the Republicans offering their thoughts and prayers to the victims of the mass shooting (does it really matter which one I name?).

In the beginning people ran for president, and the person who won got the top job, while the person who came second became vice president. The founders almost immediately realized that this system was absurdly naïve in practice since the loser was bound to be a little bitter. George Washington was elected largely uncontested, but his chief lieutenants, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, formed bitter rivaling factions in the government before Washington could even get his office chair adjusted to the proper height. Thus was a party system born despite being in no way foreseen by the framers of the Constitution.

By 1804 the Twelfth Amendment was passed, making the president and vice president a team and for all intents and purposes cementing the United States into a two-party system. Occasionally in times of great crisis new parties have risen to devour a dying old one and take its place, but otherwise two is what you get. By the way, that’s actual times of great crisis like the Civil War, not this panic is the new black breast-beating we do over freakin’ Twitter.

Now, the important word here is “majority.” In a three way race, that does not mean the person who gets 34 percent is the president, nor in a four way race does it mean the person who gets 26 percent is president. Majority means “more than half,” not “more than the others.” In these latter two scenarios, the president would be decided by the Republican-led House of Representatives. That’s the law.

Which is why voting third party is mostly an empty gesture meant to telegraph a person’s own virtue without actually involving real work. If Stein really wanted to do some progressive good or even pass her bonkers woo ideas, she’d be a Democrat or at least an Independent who works with Democrats like Sanders. If Johnson actually cared about letting you smoke weed hassle-free, he should have done something about it when he was a Republican in actual power.

Nothing Stein or Johnson say matters. At all. Their platforms are meaningless because neither of them will ever be called to do any of it or have to answer for the promises that they made to voters. Theirs is a consequence-free existence. Politifact is never going to check them on the Johnsonmeter or the Steinmeter like they did for Barack Obama and will certainly do to whoever wins this long-ass trudge to the future of the country.

Saying, “I’m voting third party” in an election year (side note: maybe get off your butts in the mid-terms once in a while?) is meant to portray someone as free-thinking or too personally virtuous to stain their hands with the evil that is the “establishment” candidate, whatever the heck that means. They aren’t sheep like the rest of us who do the popular thing. It makes the question of franchise about how good a person that particular voter appears. It’s a matter of conscience, apparently, though I question the conscience of people who are that concerned about proving they’re smarter and better than all the rest of us.

If you’re sick of the Republicans, vote Democrat, and plenty of Republicans are out and out endorsing Clinton these days. If you’re sick of the Democrats, vote Republican, like 11 percent of Democrats did in 2000, and who I blame way more than anything Ralph Nader ever did for that mess. If you want things to change, actually change, call your local headquarters for either party and volunteer. Get involved. Hard work in a thankless task for the greater good is an actual virtue. Learning how to bring people together to change the country is an actual virtue. Leadership is a virtue. Accountability is a virtue.

Voting third party, like praying, isn’t a virtue. It produces no tangible betterment of the world. It almost never produces any discernible effect at all. It’s a token gesture meant to imply the person doing it has literally done the best they could with the options available. But they haven’t, and they’ve missed an important point put forth in my favorite political film, Game Change: it’s not about you, it’s about the country.

Final note from a personal perspective. I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and let me tell you an awful lot of folks have vastly forgotten many of the things Candidate Obama was saying in the warm glow of his actual presidency. I distinctly remember his plans for fighting terrorism on the campaign trail, and they were exactly what he actually did. He didn’t betray us.

I liked those plans, and as I stand here now in the foggy aftermath filled with some victories and a lot of bloodshed, I have to own some of that. I get to own the good things, too, like health care reform and the many, many ways he made this country a better place after a dark time, but the fact remains America is this big, complicated experiment where the guy who can end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is also the guy who has made some children fear the sky and our fury.

My representative is Ted Poe, a hard-right anti-choice guy who also happens to be an astounding activist for rape victims. You know, unless they get pregnant. If he hadn’t been running unopposed in the Texas Republican primary I almost certainly would have voted in that primary to keep him, though I’m planning on voting for Democrat Pat Bryan in the general. If someone had tried to oust Poe on the Republican side, it likely would have been someone who still hates abortion, but also probably doesn’t care about rape victims either. This way, I still get at least something.

That’s politics, and more importantly, that’s America. It’s not a place built by storming out of the room in a moralistic crusade, and it’s certainly not a place where sitting on the side-lines free from any blame deserves virtuous acclaim. There’s a reason Hillary Clinton wrote a book called Hard Choices, and even Donald Trump recognizes that if his vision for America is to matter he has to actually get in the game on a team that can win. So did Sanders. You have three choices. The last one is “do nothing,” and voting third party for president is just doing nothing with a big old bowl of sanctimonious bullshit on top. Just like praying for shooting victims who need blood donations and cities that need lead out of their water.