October 30, 2008

The Most Important Election In Our Lifetime... Or Is It?

Over the past several months, I can't count how many times I've read or heard people say that the 2008 election is "the most important election of our lifetime." The candidates from both campaigns keep saying it. The political pundits from both the right and the left keep saying it. Rock stars, religious leaders, bloggers and celebrities keep saying it. Journalists like Michael Tomasky of The Guardian were already saying it 10 months ago, before the Iowa caucus kicked off the primary season marathon. Even Joe Biden's 91-year-old mother has said that this is the biggest election of her lifetime. Who's going to argue with a 91-year-old woman? I guess it must be true. Or is it?

Whenever I hear someone utter these insistent words, I wonder whose "lifetime" they are actually talking about. Since the average life expectancy of an American male is 75 years, I am expecting to kick the bucket sometime around the 2056 campaign season, which means there are still about 12 more presidential elections remaining in my lifetime. Does this mean the race between Obama and McCain will overshadow all 12 of these future elections over the next 48 years? Is 2008 the last time we'll ever heard this phrase used? Although I would be tickled pink if this happened, I'm not expecting any of the candidates in 2012 to say, "This is the second most important election of our lifetime, so go out and vote, but keep your enthusiasm just a notch below what you had in 2008."

According to a clever article from The American Scholar, which offers some much needed historical perspective, the concept of "the most important election in our lifetime" has been used in just about every election in American history. It's an old trick that we all keep falling for, even older than negative TV ads with scary announcer voices predicting doom and gloom if you vote for the wrong guy. In a recent campaign speech on behalf of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani implored the crowd by saying, "Every four years, we are told that this presidential election is the most important election of our lifetime. This year -- 2008 -- is the most important." Pardon me Rudy, but did you just say that we should believe you this time on the basis that you were wrong last time? It sounds like you're basically saying, "I know that politicians like me have a tendency to cry 'wolf' every 4 years, but this year, it's REALLY the one and only year of the wolf! You've gotta believe me this time- truly, madly, deeply with sugar on top!"

In fairness, I would agree with those who say that the 2008 campaign season has been historic and unique in many ways, particularly the groundbreaking candidacies of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Obama's lengthy primary battle with Hillary Clinton that went down to the wire on the Democratic side. But "historic" is not the same as "more important than all the rest," as if we'll never have to decide anything significant after this year. The 2004 election was not very "historic" per se, but it was certainly very important, as the last four years have shown. I can't think of much at stake in the Obama vs. McCain showdown that was not at stake with Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, Bush/Gore in 2000 or even the Clinton/Dole landslide in 1996 for that matter. Some elections are more compelling or more controversial than others, but every presidential election is important. In that sense, this year is no different.

Apart from being dishonest, the problem with telling people that we only want them to vote this one special time, in this one special year, is that it sets up a false expectation for quick fixes to complex problems. When things don't instantly change on the morning after, people become cynics and armchair quarterbacks who complain and moan without ever taking another stand, that is, until the next campaign rolls around with an urgent call to protect the fate of the universe from imminent destruction. Perhaps this helps to explain America's low election turnout rates and the tendency to take our voting rights for granted. I wonder how many people watching the election around the world would love the privilege of American citizenship so they could vote in 2008.

For the sake of a healthy democracy, I would love it if more people voted across the board, even if they vote differently than I do. We're all better off when more people have a say in how things are being run by those who represent us, but we have to learn how to encourage people to vote without making it into a "once in a lifetime" thing. There are plenty of good reason to vote this year, but "you'll never have to do it again" shouldn't be one of them.

No comments: