This post is adapted from the podcast episode “The Most Important Podcast of Our Lifetime!” by Pessimists Archive. Listen to the full version.
In October 1805, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas McKean was up for reelection, and the editors of the Philadelphia Aurora wanted him stopped. So they ran a nearly full-page excoriation that declared McKean “an apostate from principle” who was “supported by a mongrel faction.” And then the paper leveled with its readers: “Today will be held the most important election you have ever been called upon to attend.”
Huzzah to the mongrels: McKean won. But in the process, the Aurora editors had unleashed an oratorical trick that is now endemic to modern politics. Its admonishment was an early version of the phrase “this is the most important election of our lifetime,” which has been deployed nearly word-for-word in elections large and small for more than 200 years. (It’s hard to definitively say who invented the phrase, but the Aurora was the earliest I could find.) Most recently, this language has been the gospel of both President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
I dug through newspaper archives and found countless examples of this phrase describing both local and federal elections. In 1813, the Pittsfield Sun declared “the most important election that has taken place since the adoption of the federal constitution.” (It was for a slate of local candidates nobody today would know.) In 1864, the Vermont Chronicle exclaimed “the most important election in the history of this nation.” (Abraham Lincoln was running for reelection, so fair enough.) And the Greeneville Democrat-Sun, a newspaper in Tennessee, reported in 1923 that “the most important election in the history of the county will take place … when Greene County will be called on to vote $200,000 for the purpose of resurfacing the roads.” (Maybe a little overhyped?)
Our exact modern phrasing—“the most important election of our lifetime”—appears not long after. The earliest appearance I could find was 1936, from a rally to support Michigan Gov. Frank Fitzgerald’s reelection bid. The state’s secretary of state at the time, Orville E. Atwood, told the adoring crowd this: “The issue is whether American ideas are to continue or whether we are to adopt European regimentation and collectivism. This is the most important election in our lifetime.” (Fitzgerald lost. Michigan remained non-European.)
Can we look back at our own lifetime and conclude that some “most important” elections were … less than that? Yes. During the 1996 Clinton-Dole campaign, Bernie Sanders declared it “the most important election in our lifetimes and an election in which the choices have never been clearer,” and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition used the line word-for-word as well. (To up the stakes, Reed later added, “If you look back at the history of America, it is the last election of a century that always sets the tone and the priorities for the coming century.” This is nonsense: John Adams won in 1796 and was the last gasp of federalism in the White House. William McKinley won in 1896 and was assassinated.) But for all the hype at the time, veteran TV political correspondent Jeff Greenfield just recently declared Clinton-Dole the “least important election of our lifetime” in Politico. The economy was strong, incomes were rising, nobody had heard of al-Qaida, and both candidates were moderate. “America was a hotbed of … rest,” Greenfield wrote.
So why has this language been used word-for-word since at least the Great Depression? Jim Messina has an answer. He was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2012, during which Bill Clinton would often call and wake him up at 2 a.m. “He’d always say, ‘Jim, every presidential election around the world is always a referendum on the future,’ ” Messina says. “And if you win that referendum, you win the election. If you don’t, you won’t.” In other words, politicians need to make today’s election about tomorrow—which means they need voters to believe that the future literally depends on their vote. “Some politicians have short-circuited that by saying it’s the most important election of our lifetime,” Messina told me.
Messina said that Obama didn’t like the phrase, but he did appreciate its potency. That’s why the candidate went meta on the campaign trail, often spinning it like this: “Politicians say every time: ‘Oh, this is the most important election.’ This one’s really that important!” Messina believed that was smart politics: “It said to the average person, ‘I’m not just gonna give you bullshit rhetoric,’ ” Messina said. Obama was able to build trust with his audience by not using a line on them, while still basically using the line on them.
But there’s another, more practical reason a phrase like this never dies: It’s because American voter turnout is traditionally so low. “I now do world politics, and we’ve won 12 races around the world in the past five years,” Messina said, “but if you look at U.S. politics, our participation rates are just way below any of our European contemporaries. And when you start to study it, one of the most effective ways to get people to vote has been to discuss the importance in their personal lives and why this election really affects them.”
This reasoning, perhaps more than anything, unites our elections across time—from the election of a Civil War president to the resurfacing of roads. Not every election was the most important election; history proves that handily. But if there’s a candidate or issue on the ballot, then somebody feels like something’s at stake—and they can never quite rely upon the American voting public to act. So as far back as 1805, they ramped up the hyperbole until it hit the ceiling. You can’t get more important than most important. Then that became our starting point for political dialogue ever since. It’s the myth that keeps us moving, like a carrot dangling in front of a horse. Which means there’s really only one way to combat it: We could vote in numbers higher than we’ve done before, and then keep doing it. Because when a politician doesn’t have to convince us that something is important, we can start actually talking about the stuff that’s important.
Listen to the full version of the podcast for the hidden psychology behind campaign language: