The death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which has suddenly reduced the conservatives’ solid 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court to an impotent 4-4 impasse, has exposed and amplified what were always the true stakes of the November Presidential race.

Though this reality has long been obvious to the wizened, establishment pols on each side of the nation’s metaphoric aisle, those gray-haired irrelevancies have been watching in horror on the sidelines as the youth, firebrands, and purists of their parties have rallied behind unelectable candidates—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—buoying them to the top of the party surveys and, after Iowa and New Hampshire, even to the summit of the actual vote tallies.

Does someone seriously believe that a majority of the nation in a general election is going to come together behind an avowed socialist—someone who wants Obamacare scrapped and replaced with an even more generous, taxpayer-supported safety net? Or will the electorate, on the other hand, rally behind a narcissistic casino mogul who may be an entertaining improvisational speaker, but whose conservative credentials are dubious and of recent vintage, and whose main talent is insulting opponents and ethnic groups?

We were all young once, and God knows we’ve all been angry. And sometimes it really is noble to go down in flames for a just cause. But the reality of losing a presidential election is that the guy or gal who wins gets to appoint the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the body that really calls the shots in our country. In a hundred realms, it directly tells us what we can and can’t do. It’s that simple.

Can I get an abortion? Can I own a gun to protect my family? Can my neighbor own an AR-15 rifle with a 30-round magazine? Must I pay a penalty if I don’t buy health insurance? Will I be able to find affordable health insurance? Can I pray in school? Must I pray in school? Will I be able to keep my job at a coal-powered electrical plant? Will my kids be able to breathe clean air? And last, but not least—it’s Valentine’s Day after all: Can I marry the person I love?

 

The primacy of the Supreme Court in our everyday life would seem obvious, and so would, therefore, the primacy of making certain that the person who makes those appointments is someone you can live with. Not, I stress, the person you most admire in the world. Not the person whose refreshing candor makes you laugh. Not the person you’d most enjoy having a drink with. Not the person whose perspectives most closely mirror yours down the line.

Someone you can live with and who can amass more electoral votes than the opponent across the large, extremely diverse country we live in.

It’s a lesson that candidates themselves are incapable of learning, due to a malady called egotism. The poster child of this affliction was third-party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, who claimed to see no difference between the Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, whom he denounced as the twin corporatists Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. Really, Ralph? Do you think Al Gore would have appointed John Roberts, Jr., and Samuel Alito to the bench?

I was an idealist once, too. As a kid, I was convinced that a man named Julian Bond would eventually become President, and I imagined I’d eventually work on his campaign staff. And though I wasn’t quite old enough to vote, I probably never felt more enthusiasm toward a Presidential candidate than I did for Senator George McGovern in 1972. I admired nearly every one of his political positions, plus his honesty, his understated style, and his brave past as a decorated B-24 pilot with the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

He won one state.

Whatever side you’re on this election, you need to keep your eyes on the prize, which—with Scalia’s death—is now painfully obvious. It’s the Supreme Court, stupid.

Voting for a beautiful loser won’t get you there. It will, rather, ensure that all your worst nightmares come true.

Wake up. Use your vote like your life depended on it. Because it does.