Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said it on his show in May: “There is no question the country is changing for the worse. And that’s why the upcoming election is, perhaps, the most important presidential vote in our lifetime.”
The talk show host Steve Deace was way ahead of him, writing in The Washington Times in March that next year will bring “the most important election of our lifetimes. While I am normally skeptical of such talk due to its abuse nearly every election cycle, this time it’s actually true.” If we don’t make the right choice, he warns, “We could be fundamentally transformed into the spitting image of Europe’s socialist, culturally rotting democracies.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, the progressive website Electablog also announced in March: “Every election gets called ‘the most important of our lifetime.’ You now have permission to explain why this is actually true in 2016.” The reason? “The next election will decide if [Republicans] get to start undoing the progress that’s just begun.”
We will hear more of this as the campaign begins in earnest with this summer’s presidential debates. Four years ago, Conor Fridersdorf of The Atlantic wearily tried to put a stop to the “most important” cliché, calling out serial offenders and asking, “Are they so lacking in perspective that they really believe the present moment is more important than most of American history?”
Two years ago, the data maven Nate Silver added to the backlash when he crunched the numbers, decided that not much would change as a result of the midterms and told readers, “Just be skeptical if you hear that 2014 is the most important election of your lifetime, as parties, pundits and politicians almost always claim sooner or later. This election isn’t so special.”
But it’s human nature to see a point of no return just ahead. Elections always make me think of “The World Is Falling Down,” written by the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. (“Summer’s gone and winter’s here/ We had a lot of rain this year/ The news is really very sad/ The time is late, the fruit is bad.”) Sad news—or, more accurately, anger-inducing news—can help motivate people to vote. More important these days, is the idea that we’re one election away from economic or moral collapse can motivate people to give money to candidates and political groups.
“The stakes for protecting our country’s core values have never been higher,” says the homepage of Priorities USA, a political action committee raising money to help elect Democrat Hillary Clinton. “We’ve lost our way morally,” Republican Mike Huckabee said of the United States in his announcement speech, telling his audience, “I ask you to join with me today, not just so I can be president, so that we can preserve this great Republic.” It’s not surprising that the website Real Clear Politics reported in late June that its average of recent polls found 62 percent of Americans believing that the country is on “the wrong track” (versus 29 percent believing that the U.S. is heading in “the right direction”). The question is whether this pessimism is leading to, or is caused by, campaign rhetoric.
It would be ironic if Americans become so jaded by the “most important election” cliché, and so desensitized to fear-mongering, that they tune out the specific challenges the presidential candidates should be talking about. “Alarm fatigue” is the term used by many hospital workers, who must get through their day deciding how much attention to give to the bells and sirens constantly going off around them.
Pope Francis may encounter this fatigue when he visits the United States this fall, and in particular when he speaks about climate change—something that really could harm the earth in an irreversible way. He may address other current challenges in the United States, including racism, an often brutal and capricious criminal-justice system, the pressures of raising children when day care and early education are unavailable to many and widening income inequality. None of these problems are going to be resolved by a single election. They require many years of attention and many policy ideas—some of which, inevitably, won’t work.
References to “the most important election of our lifetime” are like alarms that lose their effectiveness, merely irritating us instead of rousing us to action. Better to accept that we’re always going to face challenges, and to be realistic about what we can do in a single year, even a presidential one.