Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — not to mention many of their surrogates — have made remarks of varying degrees of offhandedness — that the vote tomorrow will be the most important election, if not in all of American history then at least in recent years.
And I don’t care who says it or their greater political agenda. I wish they’d stop with the hyperbole. All elections are referenda on the proper direction of the country. And by those standards alone, they’re important. The act of voting may be the single most important responsibility a citizen may undertake.
But you hear it every four years: “this is the most important election”. And so, in and of itself, the person who makes the statement is trying to argue that each quadrennial election is more important than the previous.
While there may be some truth that some elections truly are more important than others. Looking back at history, I think we can fairly declare that the election of 1932 — in which FDR defeated incumbent president Herbert Hoover and completely turned the country around in terms of economic policy — was more important than the election of 1820, when James Monroe won re-election without a challenger.
Most of the time, though, we don’t truly know how important an election will be until well after the votes have been counted. Scratch that. I think it’s fair to say that we usually won’t know how important any given election was, until well after the victor leaves office.
I’ve spoken before about how we truly can’t judge the quality of an American president until we’ve had the opportunity to see the long-term impact of their legacy. I like using George H W Bush as an example here: arguably, the single longest-lasting result of his presidency was Most Favored Nation trading status with China. And here we are, 24 years removed from when he lost in his reelection bid and I still can’t decide if it was a good idea. Surely this implies that we can’t possibly know the importance of the election of 1988 yet.
I also take exception with trying to argue that the presidential vote itself is somehow more important than the votes for any other elected position. Even the most rudimentary reading of the constitution should inform you that the House of Representatives and the Senate are more important than the presidency anyway. So that makes the elections every other year — even when there’s nobody seeking the presidency on the ballot — at least as important if not more so than the presidential elections themselves.
And when you consider that the entire role of the Republican Party right now is to do nothing other than obstruct the Democrats, that actually makes elections to state legislatures even more important. The GOP has gerrymandered the house congressional districts so much that they have no motivation to actually govern. So those elections are also important.
So by all means, do what’s necessary to get the vote out. But careless language like calling presidential elections more important than any other election can have the negative effect of perceiving elections to other positions as being somehow less important than they already are.
This year, the distinction between the presidential candidates is quite stark. And that does make it quite important. Maybe even more important than a mere four years ago. If elected, Donald Trump and his running mate both have the potential to be quite dangerous, on multiple levels. And so we have every reason to hope for a rational electorate to turn up at the polls. But apart from the fact that it’s taking place at a time in our actual lifetimes and not yet conscripted to the pages of history, it’s still just an important election. Not the most important one.
But get out and vote anyway. It’s our duty as citizens.