It's Time to Retire the Phrase, 'This Is the Most Important Election ...'

Pundits and political observers invoke the cliche so reflexively and so often that it no longer has any meaning.

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Candidates can be forgiven for misjudging or exaggerating the import of their own electoral contests. Of course Newt Gingrich thought the race he joined was fundamentally transformative. But what inspires pundits to declare that "this is the most important election of our lives"? Dennis Prager is the latest to do so. "The usual description of presidential elections -- 'the most important in our lifetime' -- is true this time," he wrote in his Creator's Syndicate column. "In fact, it may be the most important election since the Civil War, and possibly since America's founding."

That's a sweeping claim!

Why does he think the contest between Obama and Romney is possibly more important than the elections that brought us Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan? "Election Day 2012 will not be a presidential election. It will be a plebiscite. Americans will not only be voting for a president .... They will be participating in a plebiscite on the definition of America," Prager wrote. "If Americans reelect the Democrat, Barack Obama, they will have announced that America should be like Western European countries -- governed by left-wing values. Americans will have decided that America's value system -- 'Liberty,' 'In God We Trust,' 'E Pluribus Unum' -- should be replaced. The election in November is therefore a plebiscite on the American Revolution."

I emphatically disagree. I don't think the average swing voter is deciding whether they want to preserve or abandon traditional American values. Were Obama voters asked, "Do you favor liberty and the American Revolution?" the "yes" vote would win in a landslide. Even if Obama wins, I very much doubt Prager himself will concede that he has a mandate to transform America into France.

Of course, Prager was claiming that another election was the "most important" as recently as ... 2010:

Next Tuesday, November 2, 2010 is not Election Day. It is Referendum Day. It may be commonplace for commentators to announce that every election is "the most important election in our lifetime" or something analogous. But having never said that of a presidential election, let alone an off-year election, this commentator cannot be accused of crying wolf when I say that this off-year election is not simply the most important of my lifetime.

It is the most important since the Civil War.

And he is hardly unique in promiscuously assigning historic import to Republican electoral victories.

Take Rush Limbaugh.

His assessment of Election 2012:

Romney is going to have to point out that this election is not about just defeating Obama, it's about holding back the hordes. It's about turning back the tide of the worldwide left that wants to essentially get rid of capitalism -- individualism, rugged individualism, liberty, whatever -- and replace it with a command-and-control central authority that they run... This is an ideological battle. And that's what the Tea Party's all about, and that's what conservatism's all about.

Here's what he said about the 2010 mid-terms:

No more RINOs, no more moderates, no more Republicans-In-Name-Only. They are killing us. They are why we're where we are. We could blow the most important election cycle in decades if we win these races but have more of the same kind of leadership, a leadership typified by our presidential campaign.

Said Limbaugh in 2000: "No question about it. This is the most important election in our history."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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