“We’re facing the most important election in my lifetime.”
— Gore Vidal, November 6, 2006
THE EXPRESSION PERVADES political discourse every election season. In its best form it is accompanied by a list of proofs but is just as often thoughtlessly deployed as a self-evident truth by politicians and interest groups across the political spectrum. It is the assertion that the next election is “the most important” since some arbitrary point in the past, perhaps “in my lifetime,” “in a generation,” or even, for the boldest prognosticators, “in history.”
In 1992 Bill Clinton called his challenge to President George H.W. Bush “the most important election in a generation.” In his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Sen. John Kerry informed us, “My fellow Americans, this is the most important election of our lifetime.” In 1984 Ronald Reagan said, “This is the most important election in this nation in 50 years.” And in 1976 President Gerald Ford, running against Jimmy Carter, declared “I think this election is one of the most vital in the history of America.”
This year the cant expression has been employed with unprecedented frequency. Using the Nexis search website, I found the phrase “most important election” has been used in news sources over 1,000 times so far this year, up from 561 times in 2006. Google “2008” and “most important election” and you’ll get nearly half a million references.
For instance, John McCain supporter Rudy Giuliani said in September that “2008 is the most important election in our lifetime. And we’d better get it right.” Campaigning for Obama, Caroline Kennedy said, “But I do believe this is the most important election since I was a child.”
The public seems to agree. A pre-election survey found a majority (54 percent) of centenarians believed the 2008 election was the most important election ever. These are people who were of voting age through the Great Depression, Second World War, Cold War, and Vietnam. Forty-two percent of baby boomers and 51 percent of those born after 1980 believed similarly, according to the poll of 1,000 Americans conducted by Evercare. A (very unscientific) CNN online poll after the election found that 97 percent of respondents thought this election was the most important of their lives.
IT’S HARD TO BLAME those who push the most-important-election argument to the public. After all, it is typically employed in an attempt to rouse from their stupor the approximately 100 million eligible voters who fail to do their Democratic duty on the first Tuesday each November. Despite a massive increase in the number of voters registered, preliminary reports show voter turnout this year on par with 2004 turnout, about 61 percent of eligible voters.
And this year the stakes were particularly high. With two wars on and in the midst of the worst financial crisis since Great Depression, not to mention a number of impending Supreme Court retirements, a looming entitlements crisis, and the challenges of a confrontational Iran and a resurgent and aggressive Russia, times are tough and the election mattered.
Add the historic nature of a presidential campaign that featured the first female Republican vice presidential nominee and ended with the first African-American president, and one could plausibly claim that this election really was one of the most important in our nation’s history.
Of course, whether a particular election is really “the most important” depends on whom you ask. Certainly the 2008 election was the most important for the four presidential and vice presidential candidates, and we’ll excuse them for saying so, as George W. Bush’s did when he responded “for me it is” when Larry King asked him in 2004 whether that year’s election was the most important ever.
And if, for instance, one of the American hostages in Iran in 1980 had called that year’s election “the most important ever,” who would have argued?
BUT LEST WE LOSE all sense of proportion, let us recall a few presidential elections that ought to be considered the next time we are tempted to utter the hackneyed expression.
Consider 1789 and the nation’s first election, which produced President Washington, whose steady hand and sound judgment guided the newly formed nation. Then there were the elections of 1860 and 1864, both won by America’s most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s first election pushed a divided nation to civil war and put it on the road to abolition. His second led to the war’s end and a new nation’s beginning.
Nineteen thirty-two ushered in FDR and the New Deal programs that helped millions get back to work after the 1929 stock market crash. Roosevelt also initiated the most fundamental re-structuring of the federal government in decades and later helped lead America to victory in World War II.
There was the 1980 election, which came amid economic stagflation, gasoline shortages, and the Iranian hostage crisis. That election’s winner, Ronald Reagan, was instrumental in winning the Cold War and ending the expansion of government that began with FDR.
Though it may take decades before we know precisely where this year’s election ranks in history, clearly it has already made the short list as one of the most historic.
So why are we regularly told that the next election will inevitably be looked back upon as the hinge of American — and perhaps world — history? It’s the same reason why a football player will tell reporters that his next game is the most important ever, even if he played in the Super Bowl the year before. It’s because the next game is right in front of him, and it’s the only one he has any control over. Thus it’s the only one that matters. And so it is with each election. It’s always the most important — until the next one.
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