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

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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."

Bill O'Reilly says 2012 is the most important election of our lifetime. He thought the same thing in 2008.

Michael Barone declares 2012 the most important election in "everyone's lifetime." He thought Election 2004 was the most important "in generations" too.

Are these pundits trying to boost voter turnout for the candidate they favor by exaggerating the import of the election? Are they so lacking in perspective that they really believe the present moment is more important than most of American history? I don't know why they've reached these conclusions, just that they're almost always wrong.

In 2008, Reason magazine surveyed various contributors about the presidential election being held that year. One of the questions posed: "Is this the most important election in your lifetime?"

Several of the answers were instructive:

  • "It's not, since the ideological and policy differences between Reagan and Carter (for one example) were much bigger than between the two current candidates."
  • "No. There's too little difference between the major party candidates for there to be much riding on this election. It's really only a matter of if you want a huge federal government undertaking grand leftist programs, or if you want a huge federal government undertaking grand rightist programs."
  • "The importance of this election can only be determined in retrospect."
  • "Elections are vastly overrated as a means for restraining government abuses. The more people who believe that the 2008 election will end the abuses of the Bush era, the easier it will be for the next president to perpetuate Bush's noxious principles and precedents."
  • "The 2000 election was the most important election of my lifetime, but nobody knew it at the time. Since I don't know the future this year either, I can't answer the question."
  • "Ask me on my deathbed."
  • "How can one know? That will depend entirely on what the next president decides to do. But, yes, it might potentially be the most important election given all the disastrous policies that are now back on the table..."
  • "I'm not convinced that many elections in the United States are that important, but the tragicomedy of American life is that we have a generally representative government, which is a damning comment on us. Elections can be more or less interesting but this one, despite the trappings of generational and ideological shifts, is not."
  • "Of course not."
  • "Nah, it's Coke vs. Pepsi. Though I'd prefer not to have Pepsi's finger on the nuclear button."

What those answers have in common is a modesty that explains why, four years later, none of them looks silly or discrediting. Is Election 2012 the most important in American history? Not unless the outcome largely determines whether we have a civil war. The most important since 1860? Almost certainly not. The most important in our lifetime? Odds are against it, and even if it turns out to be so, we can't reliably predict that going in. If anyone tells you that "this is the most important election..." best to keep your wits, secure your wallet, and insist that at best they're guessing -- whereas at worst they're repeating what they've promiscuously said about bygone elections too.

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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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