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The most important election

- September 17, 2008

I just googled “most important election” and got 158,000 hits. That’s a lot. Okay, it’s not nearly as many as my Google searches sometimes turn up for really important things. For example, when I googled “Wasilla” just now I got inundated by 2,080,000 hits. Still, 158,000 is a whole lot more than I got by googling “unimiportant election” (344 hits) or even “least important election” (286).

And that leads to my point. This presidential election is the most important one ever/of my generation/for many years/etc. Or so it would seem from the rhetoric surrounding the campaign. But guess what, folks? That’s the very same rhetoric that surrounds virtually every presidential campaign. Both beforehand and afterwards, we — or at least a large share of us — tend to see each presidential election as the “defining moment.” Sort of like in football, where this year’s big match-up so often gets billed as the “Game of the Century,” a mantle it is permitted to wear until next season or the season after that, when it will relinquish the throne to a brand-new “Game of the Century.” Those centuries surely do fly by.

Intelligent, well-informed people can argue about which election has really been or will turn out to be the “most important.” But in my experience, intelligent, well-informed people don’t argue about this. Perhaps they’re just not interested in the question — but I think the cause goes deeper than that. We’re predisposed to focus on the importance of the here and now. For example, when we’re asked by a pollster to name the “greatest president of all time,” we tend to think first about the incumbent, whose perceived greatness can generally be counted on to decline after a new incumbent takes office and thereby becomes the new default option for lots of people. (To judge from President’s Bush’s current standing in the polls, though, he may come first to mind when people consider the possibilities, but he’s not likely to make the cut. Perhaps he’ll be looked upon more favorably in retrospect — a possibility that I leave you to ponder on your own time.) Anyway, as presidents come and go, our memories of them fade and our assessments of their performance turn out to have been short-term rather than long-term ones. And we’re also predisposed, it seems, to have a very lofty estimate of the importance of what’s happening right now. (For example, in the 1970s Jimmy Carter proclaimed a “national crisis of confidence” in government, which turned out to have been more of a widespread skepticism about Jimmy Carter’s leadership. For the most part, the “crisis of confidence” vanished, at least temporarily, when Carter left office.)

I’m painting with a broad brush here, and I don’t want to be understood as casting doubt on whether this particular presidential election is important. I think it is. But as a social scientist, when I hear something being proclaimed as “the best” or “the most important,” I yearn for evidence of some sort (I’m not picky) that would persuade me that such an assertion is well-founded. And I’m almost always disappointed, because such assertions generally just produce a solemn nodding of heads without any particular consideration of whether what’s being said might pass a smell test.

These ruminations, by the way, were prompted by the arrival of the latest issue of The American Scholar at Casa Sigelmana. (We receive this magazine because it comes with my wife’s membership dues to Phi Beta Kappa — don’t think for a minute that I spent my undergraduate years doing anything that would have gotten me into Phi Beta Kappa.) This issue of the magazine, which isn’t accessible online as far as I can tell, contains a nicely done short piece by Christopher Clausen titled “The Most Important Election in History” and subtitled “Is it possible to elect a president without invoking that phrase?” The subtitle pretty well conveys Clausen’s take on the matter. His conclusion:

bq. Whether or not it suits candidates and the press to say so, most elections are fortunately a lot more like 1924 than 1932, let alone 1860.

Even though I can’t provide a link that’ll lead you to Clausen’s piece, here is a similar take on the matter by Shmuel Rosner over at Commentary magazine’s website, yesterday. Maybe Rosner’s significant other, too, belongs to Phi Beta Kappa and their mail arrives the day before ours does?

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