Eight years ago, in the heat of the election between George Bush and John Kerry, The New York Times ran a Week In Review piece, consisting entirely of quotations from some candidate (or proponent of some candidate) declaring the then-current election, “The Most Important Election since [X],” wherein X equals some span of time. The earliest example was from the 1864 election, taken from a Times op-ed penned by Lincoln supporter Gen. James H. Lane, and from there it’s a march through American history, ending with a litany of examples from 2004. The secret was out: important people frequently declare each election more important than all the other elections.
In 2008, Christopher Clausen published an essay in The American Scholar titled, aptly, “The Most Important Election in History,” in which he pinned down the historical context of the perennial claim. “Has there ever been an election that some people didn’t narcissistically proclaim the most important in their lifetimes? Perhaps, but such episodes are evidently so rare that they never get recorded.”
The phenomenon had been called out, explicitly, and from that moment forward, there was no use in invoking the phrase ever again—for which we are grateful, as Wednesday launches the presidential debates. The American voting public had been put on notice and were too smart to fall for such a thing.
That did not turn out to be the case.
The question of the relative importance of an election is a tricky one to pin down. Some results can be deemed important purely on the identity of the victor: 1960 gave us our first Catholic president, and 2008 our first black one. The achievements of administrations are more ineffable, and sometimes open to historic interpretation. For example, some historians would tell you that the election of Ronald Reagan resulted in decades of prosperity and expansion, and other would tell you that 1980 was the beginning of the end of the Middle Class. Consensus is that 1860 and 1864 were definitely Important Elections, as the election of Lincoln set the stage for the Civil War, and his reelection confirmed that the Civil War would be fought to the bitter end. That was a hundred and fifty years ago, of course, which might be how long it takes for historians to agree.
There’s also the question of knowing the unknowable: sure, 1932 was an important election, because it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the winner, that ended the Great Depression and gave us what we now think of as the social safety net. But what if Herbert Hoover had won reelection? His first term wasn’t so hot, but who’s to say that a second wouldn’t have had consequences that would be felt even today. To deem the importance of an election, a choice made, means having to imagine what the alternative would have been, the option that never happened. And the example above circles back to the previous point, as some would have you believe that the New Deal was actually the beginning of generations of dependency and of the end for capitalism. So, yes, it’s a tricky question, importance.
But not so tricky as to dissuade anyone from invoking it during this election. The most egregious example of Most Important Election of the current cycle is Newt Gingrich, who would frequently state, and even tweet, that the 2012 election is “the most important election since 1860.” That’s a pretty novel approach to the [X] in the equation, as customarily the amount of time since the last Important Election occurred ranges from “a generation” to “our lifetime” on up to “in history,” but then again Gingrich cites historical dates like a kid with a new thesaurus drops big words. And Gingrich was not alone. Politicians and pundits including Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Pelosi, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum (parroting Gingrich), Chuck Norris, Reince Priebus, Bobby Jindal, Ramesh Ponnuru and even Bob Grant (remember him?) have also jumped on the Most Important boat. If volume is the determining factor, we are picking importance out of our teeth already and Election Day and we haven’t even had the first debate.
This intransigence did not go unnoted. In fact, it resulted in a hail storm of thought pieces and blog posts, from heavyweights like the Washington Post and The New York Times, and also from everyone else—the Atlantic, Commentary, DailyKos, Politico, RealClearPolitics Big Government and The American Thinker. And personal blogs too! Don’t want to leave them out. But it is agreed: the expression Most Important Election Since [X] is always a clear exaggeration that has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with governing, so can we please just cut it out once and for all, or at least until the final think piece is published. (Last!)
We get the joke. To invoke Most Important Election [X] is now trite, trite and as transparent as it was the first time it was invoked, maybe back in 1860 and maybe before. It’s a cheap sleight of hand to whip up voter interest, to swindle them into thinking something’s at stake, vague enough that the voter can superimpose whatever something they’d like to be at stake. Hopefully, as George Washington ran for election in the first one, in 1788, unopposed (essentially, as at the time the runner-up was elected vice president, so other candidates were gunning for veep, plus also Washington didn’t so much run as wait in Mount Vernon for the thing to be over already), he had the good sense to declare that contest as the most important election in the history of the United States, because it was the last election for which that was empirically true.
There oughta be a law. Clausen’s Law: the proclaimed importance of an election is directly proportional to the desperation of the speaker.
But hyperbole will persist, and it will persist with players perhaps more deft than Newt Gingrich (statistical lock). Every election is the most important election in [X], at least to the candidates. It’s a win-or-go-home game, and questions of predictive historical accuracy are not at the front of the minds of those running for office. If a harmless fib is what it takes to convince you to go out and vote, then so be it, and hopefully the candidate will escape the on-fire pants or the Pinocchios or whatever the soft guardians of fact will be using to denote fibbing in the future. And you will grit your teeth every time you hear it, and maybe write a couple outraged paragraphs to go with the headache that teeth-grinding causes, but it’s really no worse than the same headache caused by the Fox Robots that bookend Sunday football, and certainly no worse than the blinding brainshock induced by the umpteenth year of Talk Like A Pirate Day. It’s the price we pay for our little democracy, for the pretension that all our votes count, even if we live in a state, like New York or Texas, so entrenched that even the vote suppression wet dreams of Hans von Spakovsky could not sway the electoral college one way or the other, we still need to go to the polls.
And that’s the nubbin of truth hinted at by this trope every election is the most important election, whether for alderman or president or comptroller or state flower. Elections are the will of the people, and every vote unvoted is like a Mega Millions winner failing to claim the ticket. The options are never ideal and sometimes gruesome, and obviously influenced by all sorts of non-voting factors starting with the Citizens United decision and moving on from there to Election Day weather, but the mechanism, tarnished and imperfect, creaky and exploitable, is there. It took a hundred years and change to ensure that everyone could use it. Voting is easy to be cynical about, but, on paper, actually and pretty freaking nifty.
Yes, there is something tawdry about the whole process, and Clausen’s Law is only one small example. The simple act of having a political television ad ambushing you during an episode of “Fringe” is all you need to know about the plasticity of the process, its inherent awkwardness. People really talk like that? Does that guy iron his polo shirts? Most importantly, how stupid do they think you are, talking down to you like that, thinking you susceptible to such grade-school rhetoric? Pretty stupid, actually. And that is why we vote, to show that they’re wrong. Not this year, and maybe not even soon, but looking back on where we started and then where we are now, it’s very clear: progress marches on. We voted it in.