Regardless of which side you're on, I think you'll agree that this year's presidential election is awfully important. The voters have been presented with a clear choice between two candidates with fundamental differences in their backgrounds and levels of experience and in their plans for our country's future. The significance of this year's election is amplified by the global economic crisis, the unsettled situation in Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
In fact, by my estimation, this is the third most important election of my lifetime.
So it's a little discouraging that, despite unprecedented interest, the best estimates of likely voter turnout on November 4th still hover at around 60%.
That's right. More than a third of our fellow citizens will not bother to vote, not just on who will be our next president but to select their senators, congressmen, and whether to approve a broad variety of local ballot measures.
Now admittedly, the importance of a particular election is somewhat subjective. For those of you who lived through World War II, I'm sure the 1940 election between FDR and Wendell Wilkie makes this one look pretty insignificant. After all, Wilkie was a corporate stooge who had never held prior office. Sure, he was a fresh face but novelty wears off in politics just like it does in everything else.
If you voted in the middle of the Korean or Vietnam wars in 1952 or 1968, those must have seemed like crucial elections, especially considering how strongly the candidates differed on what to do going forward. I think we can agree that elections held during wartime (like those in 1940, '44, '52, '60, '64, '68, '72, 2000, and '04) are always especially important.
In addition, the social upheaval in '68 (not to mention the participation of the segregationist George Wallace) pretty much guaranteed that that election would be in most people's top three. As it turned out, the country wound up with Richard Nixon and we all know what happened to him (though few would have predicted the ultimate outcome when they were deciding who to vote for.)
One reason this year's election is different is that, for the first time, an African-American is running for the presidency. I think that puts it right up there with 1960 when a Roman Catholic ran (and won!) I bet many of you who voted in that election couldn't believe that you had the opportunity to cast such an historic vote (unless you were old enough to have voted for the Catholic Governor of New York, Al Smith, in '28.) For those of you who voted for a female vice-president in the important election of 1984, this year may seem a little anti-climactic. Still, that's no reason not to participate.
Personally, I was too young to vote in any of the historic and important elections that took place before 1980. That was the first one I voted in and, man, was it important! I voted for the Third Party candidate, John Anderson, because, as an idealistic young person, I was eager to elect someone new and different, who didn't owe anything to the traditional establishment. I was hungry for change and Anderson seemed like a real maverick.
Any election in which a generational shift is in the wind seems pretty darn important to voters on both sides of the divide. Younger voters often feel that their time has come; older ones expect a last hurrah. Back in 1992 when Bill Clinton faced the first George Bush, the sense that the torch was about to be passed to a new generation was almost palpable, just the way it must have been back in 1960.
If you didn't think this year's election was vitally important a few months ago, maybe you've changed your tune recently as the banking crisis has gripped the capital markets tighter and tighter. I can't recall a financial shock this severe since maybe the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 80s and early 90s, the Argentine Debt Crisis of 2000, the Japanese Asset Price Bubble of the late 90s, the Recessions of '53,'57, '80, '81, '90, and 2001 (not to mention the 1973 Oil Crisis,) or maybe the Dot Com Bust of 2000-2001. But for those of you in your 90s and 100s who remember the Great Depression, I'm sure all of those seem like pretty small potatoes. For you, the elections of the 30s were extremely important. I don't mean to compare this one to any of those. That's why I made it number three. But still, it's very important to have the right person in charge, even if the current crisis doesn't turn out to be quite as severe as it sometimes seems.
There's no denying that the latest unemployment figure are the worst in five years. I think that makes it pretty clear how important the upcoming election is while also highlighting how important the last one, four years ago, was. Four years ago was also the last time the Dow was below 10,000. When you look at the numbers, it's hard to deny that 2004 was one of the most important elections ever, even if it didn't seem that way at the time.
We all know that some elections are important not because you need to vote for someone great, but because you need to vote against someone reckless. Throughout the Cold War, the United States faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union. The stakes in any given election were raised or lowered depending on the level of tension. When I think back to 1984 when I rushed to the polls to try and thwart Ronald Reagan's confrontational and destabilizing schemes for a Star Wars missile defense system and an arsenal of nuclear-tipped Pershing II missiles in Europe... well, it's really hard to capture the urgency for kids who are just voting for the first time this November.
Looking back at all those important elections and inspiring candidates like Michael Dukakis and Ralph Nader who really made us feel as though we were on the threshold of a fundamental change in the way government works, I realize that I probably thought each one of the elections I've lived through was very important, maybe even the most important of my lifetime. But since none of us knows what lies ahead, it's not unreasonable to imagine that those of you with long enough lifetimes may eventually look back on this election in the context of unknowable future challenges and decide that it wasn't really the third most important, more like the eighth (any practical immortality serum will make the exercise moot.) But still, that's no reason not to vote. After all, life is long (and getting longer) and you never know.