For the next six weeks, you are going to be hearing once again, and constantly, that this is the most important election of our lifetime and possibly the last free election we’ll ever have.
I’ve heard this about every single election I have ever followed: It is the most important ever and democracy itself and even the survival of the country is at stake. This time around, it comes most recently from Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—because who better to talk about American elections than British royals? They tell us: “Every four years, we’re told, ‘This is the most important election of our lifetime.’ But this one is.”
Every election, it seems, is most importanter than the last.
This is always an exaggeration, but it raises an interesting question. What was the most important presidential election of our lifetimes—and how can we even tell?
I’ll just stick to my lifetime, so the first presidential election I’ll be looking at is 1972. That gives us nearly 50 years to work with. As I see it, there are three criteria.
First, what were the big issues, if any, on which the election was fought? What did voters believe, from their perspective at the time, they were being asked to decide?
Second, how uncertain was the outcome? To what extent was the answer already a foregone conclusion before Election Day?
Third, given the advantages of hindsight, what were the actual results of the election?
That last question is probably the most important, because elections often turn out to be less important (and occasionally more important) than they seem. For example: 2000 did not strike me as a monumentally consequential election in terms of the big issues. It was a centrist Republican versus a centrist Democrat, and at the time, the election mostly seemed to be about the Republican Party veering back toward me-too welfare statism in the form of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” The actual significance of the election, of course, was transformed after the fact by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet, it’s not entirely clear how Al Gore would have handled things differently. We know he acted differently later. After losing the election, he felt more free to say what he actually thought and not what he felt he was supposed to say. But while he still harbored presidential ambitions, Gore was much more of a cautious, mainstream politician, so it’s hard to guess what he would have done if he had been in office.
My top three candidates for the most important election are 1972, 2004, and 1980.
1972 was the year the far left crazies made a bid to take over the Democratic Party, with George McGovern as their figurehead. The American people were asked to make a big choice: embrace or reject the far left.
In retrospect, though, the outcome wasn’t that close. Nixon won in a landslide; Pauline Kael may not have known anyone who voted for him, yet he won in Manhattan. While the hippies of the McGovern wing have since gained much more power, they are still struggling to gain dominance in the Democratic Party. Otherwise, they would have nominated Bernie Sanders.
After winning the election, Nixon squandered all of his advantages, both through a series of big government programs and the Watergate scandal, which managed to get a lot of lefties elected to Congress in 1974, where they were able to pursue key items in their agenda. In retrospect, the significance of that election turned out to be much more muddled than it seemed at the time.
In 2004, the issue was whether to give the reins of the Iraq War to a guy who entered politics as a scurrilously anti-American, antiwar leftist. And while George W. Bush had a strong lead for most of the campaign, it got surprisingly close at the end.
As to the results, Iraq went badly for a while after the election, but I’m still convinced things would have been much worse under John Kerry. Bush managed to recover with the “surge” in 2007. Barack Obama did his best to undo any progress in Iraq later on (which resulted, temporarily, in the rise of ISIS). But that outcome was almost certainly not as bad as it would have been if President Kerry had withdrawn in 2005, giving the world a re-enactment of the last helicopter out of Saigon, but from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
All of this is debatable, by the way, and involves counterfactual hypotheticals that are inherently uncertain. So I’m not standing by any of this as the absolute truth; it is merely a balance of probabilities.
I think like I’m on more solid ground in naming the election that was the most important of my lifetime: 1980. It gave us the omnishambles of the Carter administration—gasoline shortages, the Iran hostage crisis, double-digit inflation—versus a strong new direction for the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan had taken up the banner of the hawkish, pro-free-market Barry Goldwater wing of the party, moving away from the Rockefeller wing of “liberal Republicans.”
As for the uncertainty of the outcome, the election was far from the foregone conclusion it might seem like in retrospect. Even with Carter floundering badly, Reagan was considered a big risk, and voters broke for him relatively late in the campaign.
The ultimate results were disappointing in a few respects—but spectacular in others. Reagan never really cut the federal budget, and he passed up his big opportunity to reform Social Security. But we got some deregulation and tax cuts and a long economic boom, combined with a military buildup that triggered the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet empire
The Reagan Revolution, as it was called, re-aligned the Republican Party for more than a generation, largely in a good way. For nearly 40 years, one major political party considered small government and the defense of individual liberty, including economic freedom, to be central to their stated political agenda.
This is probably the only true, enduring political realignment of the past 50 years.
How about the least consequential elections? The 1984 election is a good candidate. To be sure, it served as a ratification of Reaganism, but the outcome wasn’t really in doubt. It was morning again in America, and Mondale was doomed. Reaganism had already won before a single vote was cast.
Similarly, in hindsight, 2008 was not as significant as we feared at the time. That’s partly because Barack Obama turned out to be a more cautious, mainstream politician than his background suggested. But it’s mostly because, after 2010, he faced stiff resistance from a Republican Congress emboldened by the Tea Party movement, which prevented him from pursuing much of his agenda. Congressional Republicans certainly imposed more limits on government spending under Obama than they have managed under Trump.
Where does that put 2020?
Joe Biden does not strike me as likely to be a transformative president if he wins. Within his party, he represents neither a decisive rejection of the far left nor an embrace of it, but rather an attempt to come to some kind of inoffensive common ground. His refusal even to comment on packing the Supreme Court is typical; he has no apparent enthusiasm for the idea, nor is he rushing to condemn it.
Biden seems more likely to be a transitional man, doing little of importance on his own—at best, he is likely to have only a bare majority in Congress—and mostly just setting us up for whoever comes next.
The significance of this election is primarily on the Republican side. Donald Trump’s rise has encouraged a surge of “nationalist” conservatism that is anti-capitalist and dismisses the Reagan Revolution as the wave of the past, tainted by an excess of individualism. They even dismiss it as “Zombie Reaganism,” on the theory that if they assert it has already died, nobody will bother to defend it.
Donald Trump is not a man who deals in theories and big ideas, yet he and this ideological movement have found themselves simpatico. If Reagan ushered in an ideological realignment of the right, Trump represents a realignment of that realignment, putting the final stake through the heart of Reaganism and replacing it with an illiberal nationalism the outlines of which are still being worked out.
Then again, we may look back and conclude, in retrospect, that this already happened in 2016. Reaganism was already dying—for better and for worse, but mostly for worse—and I’m not optimistic it will suddenly spring back to vigorous health if Trump loses in November. After all, who has the agency to credibly snap back to it after four years of excusing Trumpian nationalism?
So, yes, you can make the case that this is an important presidential election, probably more important than the average one of the past 50 years—but we should also show some humility about how much we know about what the ultimate outcome will be. The issues in this election are important enough on their own without having to be overhyped as the one single choice that determined everything about our future.
Thinking that way lets us off the hook when it comes to what really matters. A single choice made once every four years has never been the determining factor in history. Elections are never our most important political decisions. The future of freedom depends a lot more on what we do in between elections—what we do culturally and intellectually, in terms of the basic ideas and arguments that influence the selection of presidential candidates.
So make your best calculations about what you think your vote this fall might accomplish, but also keep your sense of perspective—and make your plans for what you’re going to do after the ballots are cast.