This year I have heard a number of folks claim that "this is the most important election in my lifetime", usually in defense of the argument that Candidate X must be elected. I guess I've heard it enough at this point to feel compelled to write something about it.
There are variations on this theme. On the radio I heard a woman - an ordinary voter stopped by a reporter at a campaign rally - say that she "fears for the future of our country" if the candidate she doesn't like wins the election, and that she is concerned that "my children may not have a country" in four years.
This is nothing new, of course. People have been making these kinds of sweeping existential claims for several election cycles now. It would be interesting to research how far back these claims go, but I suspect their origin is in the last 20 years or thereabouts. So I'm not surprised. What bothers me is the extent to which these claims have become mainstream - that nobody really bats an eyelash anymore.
I don't, of course, expect the candidates themselves to contradict their own supporters. They love this kind of fervid (if feverish, even deluded) devotion, because it helps drive voter turnout. Neither candidate and neither party is above using fear as a motivator, because fear works.
I am a little disappointed that the news media seem to have abandoned the field to this looniness. There was a time in the distant past when respected journalists (think Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite) would not let such nonsense pass without comment. Even the Dan Rather generation would, I think, have eventually felt it necessary to say something dismissive. But today's news media apparently thinks that their job is to put the microphone in someone's face, turn it on, and then head home. So no help there.
That leaves it to the rest of us ordinary folks to try to fight the slowly rising tide of this particular "most important election ever" delusion. On the off chance that anybody holding this particular misperception might read this, therefore, I offer the following:
1) This is not the most important election in your or anybody else's lifetime. Whatever reasonable arguments might be made about measuring such a thing, this one doesn't pass muster. It's just not that kind of historical moment.
2) The United States will not face an existential threat if (insert candidate name here) is elected. Existential threats to societies are extremely rare, and only come in two forms: external and internal. There is nothing outside the US remotely powerful enough to threaten the whole of US society, and nothing so far beyond the norm internally it that could bring the whole house of cards down. 8% unemployment? France (a fairly respectable economy) has spent decades wishing for unemployment in the single digits. Deficits and debt? Big, yes - big enough to suggest the need for significant changes. But not nearly big enough to threaten to collapse the country into Mad Max land. And whatever you think of the future prospects for global warming, anybody who thinks that either Romney or Obama is the single salvation for that problem needs a reality check.
3) Presidents, and therefore Presidential elections, aren't nearly as consequential as we think they are. Most of the stuff that happens that we care about isn't controlled - isn't even particularly influenced - by who is in the White House. We're talking about a job that, while important and publicly prominent, may on a good day have some marginal influence on some 0.1% of what goes on in the US. If you care about taxes, start paying attention to Congress - they write the tax code. Ditto for spending. And mostly (with some occasional and notable, but rare, exceptions) Congress just tinkers around the edges of what already is.
This is not to say that government isn't important, or that it isn't important to try to get it right or to argue about what we think it should or shouldn't do. Government sometimes makes decisions that matter a lot, for good or for ill. At its most powerful, it can make decisions that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives (funny how war doesn't seem to matter in elections, though...)
But in the end, the government does not control society. Any society as big, complex, and relatively prosperous as America is going to lumber along doing what it does. Government can try to nudge it, even herd it a bit, in certain directions. But it can't mortally wound it. Ultimately, we really are more important than the government (however much a candidate might sometimes like us to believe otherwise).
So by all means, vote for your favorite candidate and/or party. Hold election-night parties and celebrate (or mourn) with your like-minded friends. Just don't be afraid that your world is going to end if the other guy wins. We're stronger than that.