"And I’ve gone around this country over the past year now and said this is the most important election in our lifetimes. And, in fact, I think it’s the most important election since the election of 1860."It's a line that we've heard countless times before—not just this year, but every year throughout, well, our lifetimes. But it got me thinking: what actually has been the most important election of our lifetime?
First, of course, you must define "important," which turns out to be the rub. Is an election "important" because it was judged to be by politicians, pundits, and voters at the time? Or are we allowed to look back retrospectively and say that an election was important because of what it begat? Can an election be "important" if its outcome was never really in doubt? And how can someone separate ideology from their perception of importance? People often communicate such urgency by emphasizing "what's at stake" in an election, which is usually code for one side or the other being an unacceptable, radical, or frightening choice. (This, of course, is the case of Rick Santorum and the current president he loathes.) When all is said and done, the term "the most important election of our lifetime" is always a subjective judgment—and almost always just an insincere, partisan throwaway line.
I do agree with Santorum on one point: the election of 1860 pretty clearly was the most important in American history. But since then, there have been several historic, highly contested, or just plain consequential presidential elections. With the caveat that such a list must necessarily be vague and that I have tried to divorce ideology from these rankings (thus rendering them toothless, in many ways), here is my attempt at ranking nine elections that seem to contradict Santorum's hypothesis. (Note: for neutrality's sake, I'm leaving out 2012—which I feel can't be properly judged until 2016 anyway.)
You remember this one, right? The first election conducted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks pitted one of our most polarizing presidents ever—George W. Bush—against Democrat John Kerry. This one makes the list because I still have vivid memories of people saying they would move to Canada if Bush won a second term—"what's at stake" was a lot for those folks. More objectively, there was much discussion about whether we should replace a president during wartime, as American efforts in Iraq were just beginning. It's no exaggeration to say that the fate of that conflict rested on this election's outcome.
The election of 1980 is rightly considered transformational; it swept away the tattered remains of the New Deal coalition (i.e., Jimmy Carter) and installed conservative scion Ronald Reagan in the White House. This election was perceived as important at the time because of the immediate issue of the Iran hostage crisis, but its primary significance has been historical; everything Reagan achieved in office has its origins in 1980, not to mention all the campaign rally cries of his name that have happened since.
I see 2008 as the Democratic version of 1980. Love him or hate him, Barack Obama has been transformational in his own right, implementing several major pieces of legislation and (at least initially) stirring up an enthusiasm among Democrats and young voters that hadn't been seen since John F. Kennedy. The election also rewrote the electoral-college map and, depending how the next few decades go, may signal a long-term shift toward Democratic dominance (just as Reagan did for Republicans in 1980). The 2008 election gets the edge over 1980 because of the added urgency of the campaign in the moment (the entire American economy collapsed only a few months before Election Day) and its barrier-breaking nature—notably, two prominent women coming very close to the presidency and our first African-American president ever.
We did 2008; now the other extreme. If Rick Santorum is such a fan of Abraham Lincoln, then he should have thought to give props to this election, which represented Lincoln's wartime reelection campaign against General George McClellan, whose pro-peace Democratic Party would have let the Confederacy walk. You read that right—if 1864 had turned out differently, we would be two countries right now. This election loses "importance" points because its outcome was never really in doubt, but a strong argument could be made to place it higher. (Honestly, any of my top six could have been ranked first.)
This is the one recent election when I would not have begrudged a candidate for using the "most important election" line; things were scary in '68. People in the midst of the campaign had every reason to think that nothing less than their future existence hung on the November ballot; ask anyone who was alive, and they'll tell you that 1968 felt like the world was ending. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated; hippies championed free love and the dissolution of social norms; riots erupted in Chicago and across the country, often centering on race. The biggest issue in the campaign between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey was probably the Vietnam War, although the third-party candidacy of segregationist George Wallace ensured that that issue never left the public mind. Indeed, 1968 would easily win "most important" if only contemporary considerations were taken into account. Alas, we in 2012 have the benefit of foresight, and we know that Nixon's victory actually had few transformational effects; he continued the Vietnam War (as Humphrey likely would have as well) and largely left the nation's deep social wounds to heal themselves.
This is a forgotten election, but I stand strongly by its inclusion so high on the list; America has perhaps never taken such a sharp right turn. Republican Warren G. Harding's victory over Democrat James Cox signaled an abrupt halt to what has become known as the Progressive Era, the period from 1900 to 1920 when both parties became infatuated with idealism, internationalism, and even socialism. Specifically, Cox would have continued the very liberal policies of outgoing President Woodrow Wilson—most famously the League of Nations and his grand plan for world peace. Instead, President Harding adopted a strict isolationist policy, leaving the League for dead and setting the stage for World War II. Oh yeah, and Harding was the first of three Republican presidents during the 1920s to institute economic policies that would lead to the Great Depression.
This election scores points for offering a very clear contrast between its two contenders: incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater. It also gets extra credit for being perhaps the most famous example of one side being completely terrified of the other. Fairly or not, Goldwater was painted as an extremist on virtually every issue—extremely pro-states'-rights, extremely anti-big-government, and extremely enamored with nuclear weapons. With "Daisy," the first political ad ever (another reason that year was important!), fresh in their minds, voters in 1964 might very well have thought that their lives depended on which lever they pulled. Furthermore, Johnson's 1964 win brought about the most consequential event of the late 20th century: the Vietnam War.
The textbook definition of the "most important" election, 1932 doesn't have the sex appeal of '64 or '68, but it can't really be ranked lower than 2 (I'm shocked that I have it that low!). This, of course, was the election that brought Democratic hero Franklin D. Roosevelt to power, displacing Republican Herbert Hoover, who in 1929 had brought about the worst economic crisis in American history—then spent the next three years not doing anything about it. It is impossible to overstate the urgency with which people must have gone to the polls on November 8, 1932; despairing for three years, possibly homeless and starving, they at last had something—or someone—to place their hopes in. Roosevelt also offered completely original and unique policy platforms (i.e., government programs and the New Deal) that stood out as very different from Hoover's. From a political scientist's perspective, this was also a crucially important election: it completely realigned the electoral map and kicked off almost 50 years of Democratic dominance of American politics. Finally, FDR's win set the stage for the growth of the federal government, a trend that has continued ever since and one that has obviously been profoundly influential.
Roosevelt gets most of his attention for the 1932 election, but I find it impossible to ignore 1940, in part because it is such a starkly simple argument. A war raged in Europe whose aggressor was clearly no friend to America, and by 1940 it was clear that he was winning. At a time when Great Britain was struggling to maintain its existence as the only thing between Adolf Hitler and the United States, American voters had a choice: a proven two-term leader in Roosevelt, or his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie—who had literally never held elective office in his life. Furthermore, Willkie was adamantly in favor of peace and isolationism at a time when that was probably the most dangerous course of action. Simply put, it's fair to be afraid of what would have happened—to the United States and to the world—if Wendell Willkie had been left to go mano-a-mano with Hitler. To me, that is the definition of the most important choice Americans have ever had to make.