John F. Kerry, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. all agree: The election they contested was the most important of our lifetime.
That phrase is getting considerable attention these days, in part because it has been repeated so often, because it creates urgency, because it may promote bigger voter turnout, and because this time, it might actually be true.
In the case of Kerry, Romney, Obama, Clinton, Trump and Biden, it surely is true, at least for them.
Their campaigns were the most important of their lifetimes: more important for Kerry, for example, than his 1982 campaign for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and more important for Obama than his 1996 state-legislative campaign in the 13th senatorial district of Illinois.
But how about us?
This election surely is important.
With a pandemic raging through its third deadly phase; with a disrupter president seeking a second term; with the American role in international trade, relations and institutions unsettled; with grave divisions seeming to widen in the population; with the manners on the national stage an issue at the household dinner table; and with the American tradition of the orderly transfer of power perhaps facing its biggest challenge since 1877 if not since 1801, there are big stakes involved in this election.
Some commentators argue that we won’t know whether this is the most important election of our lifetime, or of our national history, until many decades have passed.
That argument might have applied to the 2004 and 2008 contests. There was, in those contests, no likelihood that the country might veer off established paths or repudiate generations-long customs, no matter who won.
This election is different.
Both Trump’s supporters (who see long-overdue changes in priority and tone in the presidency) and his detractors (who see grave dangers in the president’s conduct and policies) agree that America since 2017 has become a different place.
The president’s supporters want four more years of these changes, believing they will transform the country in a positive way. His detractors agree that four more years would transform the United States, but in a wholly negative and tragic way.
We — Trump supporters and detractors alike — are fully aware of this now.
We don’t have to wait another decade to understand the significance of the election.
This is not a Zhou Enlai moment; the late Chinese leader often is remembered for being asked the effect of the 1789 French Revolution or, possibly, the 1968 student rebellions, and to have said that it was “too early to say.”
In this case, it’s not too early to say.
There are a handful of elections that were, in the phrase historians sometimes apply, “critical.”
One was 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated President John Adams, because it showed that an incumbent executive could be toppled and, moreover, that he would surrender the presidency peacefully, establishing the U.S. as perhaps the only revolutionary regime that has ever respected a formal opposition.
Another might have been 1896, representing the ascendancy of a new kind of Republican leader who was, in the title of Robert W. Merry’s biography of the 25th president, the “architect of the American century.”
Sometimes the 1968 election is cited for Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but he lost the entire Deep South except for South Carolina.
As for the election of Obama, the first Black president, the political historian Susan Barsy characterized that as “the critical election that wasn’t.”
Many historians mention the 1932 election, conducted amid the distress and disillusion spawned by the Great Depression. But its importance — now beyond debate — was not clear at the time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned as a budget balancer, though, as the FDR biographer Susan Dunn of Williams College put it in an interview, while “some of his speeches were very forthright, many were very muddy.”
President Herbert Hoover warned, in a Madison Square Garden speech, that Roosevelt would “alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been builded (sic) through generations of testing and struggle.”
Yet FDR offered few specifics, even while campaigning for a “New Deal.”
Indeed, when, on Inauguration Day, he spoke of “action, and action now,” he said that was what the country demanded — but he didn’t say much about what actions he would take.
But apart from 2020, there may have been only three elections — perhaps four if Andrew Jackson’s defeat of John Quincy Adams in 1828 is considered — when it was clear in advance that the character of the United States would be determined.
The first was 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, who had served only in the Illinois legislature and in a single House term, ran against three contenders with traditional presidential qualifications and prevailed amid talk, and fears, of secession.
No one who went to the polls in 1860 misunderstood the stakes.
It was clear that a Lincoln victory would put the country’s survival in jeopardy. “The fate of the nation seemed to be in the hands of Young America,” the City University of New York historian David S. Reynolds wrote in “Abe,” his new biography published last month.
The second — much ignored — was 1964, when GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona vowed to end the New Deal/Great Society era in American politics, marking, as Lee Edwards of the conservative Heritage Foundation put it, the “beginning of a shift to the right that would eventually end 50 years of liberal dominance in American politics.”
That choice was on offer in Goldwater’s race against President Lyndon B. Johnson, though America did not choose that path.
It did choose that path in the final example, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, backed by religious conservatives who had supported Jimmy Carter four years earlier, defeated Carter in a contest that television preacher Jim Bakker called “the most important election ever to face the United States.”
Though later discredited, Bakker nonetheless spoke an important truth.
The enduring significance of Reagan’s election was the rejection of big government and the conviction, as the onetime actor put it in that year’s presidential debate, that “free enterprise can do a better job of producing the things that people need than government can.”
In about 10 days, we face a fourth such decision.
Americans may disagree about their choice. But they cannot disagree about the consequence of that choice.