The New York Times editorial headlined “Wasted Votes” when reprinted Sept. 28 complained that voters casting ballots for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein would aid the election of Donald Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton.

The panicky establishment Democrats have belatedly discovered that Clinton, their anointed candidate, is the modern equivalent of Thomas Dewey: highly qualified but utterly unappealing to voters.

But the Times’ editors ought to take more seriously the important role of third parties.

For structural and historical reasons, our nation has a two-party system, which has usually worked to provide stability. But without some external stimulus it can sink into stagnation or degenerate into hyper-partisan gridlock.

Third parties, by test-driving new ideas and controversial reforms, work to unblock the machinery and freshen the debate.

When enough voters defect from the dominant parties, the professional politicians decide to swipe the third party issues and enact their reforms, thus retrieving the loyalties of the disaffected voters.

The antebellum Liberty and Free Soil parties forced reluctant politicians to confront the evils of slavery. The Populist Party advanced women’s suffrage and other democratic reforms, and denounced political corruption in the Gilded Age. The Progressives’ and the Socialists’ solutions to industrial abuses a century ago were adopted in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression.

But the third-party vector also can work in reactionary directions. The anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of the 1850’s, and Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrats, as well as George Wallace’s segregationist insurgency in 1968, proved that political exploitation of racial and religious prejudice can also pay off.

The Republican Party decided under Ronald Reagan to deliberately appeal to the Wallace voters, embracing the Southern Strategy of scapegoating and divisiveness. For 30 years, the GOP has prepared the path for the triumph of the Trump chumps. Trump, a bully and an ignoramus, uses blatant appeals to fear and prejudice to whip up a political lynch mob. His followers simply don’t care when Trump lies, or that he targets everyone, even parents of dead soldiers. That fuehrer-prinzip mentality was expressed this week when a woman told a reporter, “If Trump says it, it’s the truth.”

Now, having set out this grim analysis, how can I defend the choice of voting for a third-party candidate?

I do so because of the fact that the presidential election isn’t one national vote. It consists of 51 separate contests in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. (A candidate can win the popular vote — as Al Gore did in 2000 — but still lose in the Electoral College.)

Most states are dominated electorally by one party or the other. No Republican will carry California; no Democrat will win in Texas. In those non-swing states, voters who prefer the positions articulated by third-party candidates can safely choose the Green, Libertarian, or other minor party candidate. And they should do so — to send a warning to the corrupt political establishment that worked so hard to present two such indigestible major-party candidates.

In the swing states — such as Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin — every patriotic voter should indeed support Hillary Clinton to try to stave off Trump. Even Republicans should vote for Clinton, realizing that their party still controls the Congress and most state governments, and therefore checks and balances will still prevail.

To discredit the Libertarian and Green nominees, the Times’ editorialists denounced some of the lesser-known planks of those parties’ platforms.

But the editors pointedly ignored the main issue that has boosted those candidates from obscurity and placed them on the pollsters’ and politicians’ radar — namely, their emphatic support for legalization of cannabis.

In 2014, pro-legalization measures received more votes than the winning major-party gubernatorial candidates in states as diverse as Oregon, Alaska and Florida. Part of the support for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries came from his endorsement of legalization.

Actually, the New York Times Editorial Board itself emphatically supports legalization of marijuana.

So if the Times and other responsible figures, including myself, want to convince voters of the importance of beating Trump — even if it means voting for Clinton — then be reasonable about it.

Realize that in non-swing states, protest votes are a useful and significant part of the political process. Encourage major-party politicians to listen to the reasons propelling those protests, and act accordingly.

Oliver Steinberg lives in St. Paul.