The Nation magazine recently declared that the 2016 election “may be the most important election of our lives.” This really shouldn’t be surprising, since nearly every presidential election has been accompanied by similarly breathless promises that it will be one of the most important of our lives. In 1888, during a campaign in which Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland feuded over industrial tariffs, the New York Times proclaimed that “The Republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history” (the incumbent Cleveland, who lost that election, retook the presidency four years later). More recently, Senator Robert Byrd announced that the 1992 election “may be the most important election of this century,” while Bill Clinton more modestly claimed that it was merely “the most important election in a generation.” Barbra Streisand even announced that the 1998 midterm election was “one of the most important elections in the history of this country” before realizing that it was in fact the 2004 election that was “the most important election of our lifetime.” Al Franken agreed with Barbra, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen, among others, that the Bush-Kerry election was the most important in memory, while Obama asserted that it was the 2008 election that was the most important in our lifetime (and “not just because I’m running”). During the most recent election Nancy Pelosi proclaimed that the Obama-Romney face-off was the “most important of our generation” while Newt Gingrich declared that the 2012 contest was the most important since the Civil War.
Such feverish pronouncements are accurate only insofar as the next election — as opposed to previous or non-existent future elections — is always the only one that is happening now. That is, the measurement — a meaningless quantitative value revealing the absence of any qualitative value — used to compare elections has no significance outside of a permanent ahistorical spectacle. Has anyone ever said that the next election will be one of the least important of our lifetime?
To be sure, there are all manner of national and international emergencies that make some historic situations more momentous than others. But the election peddlers rarely consider why such crises — including wars and recessions — recur in the first place. Instead of discussing why crises are built into the system, they debate the temperament of the system’s managers. This fixation on presidential temperament was only reinforced with the 2000 election. Blaming George W. Bush’s bipartisan war against Iraq on neither Republicans nor Democrats but on Ralph Nader, liberals have desperately clung to the counterfactual that a Gore Administration would have waged only so-called good wars and merely maintained the status quo in Iraq via the Clinton Administration’s mass murder sanctions program of the 1990s.
However, even this belief in a “presidential difference” ignores that a President Gore would not have been the bearded, environmental “warrior” he has presented himself as since forfeiting the election. Gore (an opportunistic, protean, and militaristic politician flanked by a frothing hawk for his VP) would have been “commander in chief” and steward of the state and would have therefore wreaked havoc on the world as surely as Clinton did in Yugoslavia, Bush did in Iraq, and Obama did in Libya. As Obama’s drone program indicates, presidential differences here are matters of technique, but because liberals are frequently more concerned with presidential management’s form than content, they do not seem to notice that being a good manager is wholly compatible with being a mass murderer.
Nevertheless, liberals, with fear and trauma flowing through their veins, are now ringing the alarm bells over Trump, who, to be sure, makes innumerable repulsive statements (even if Trump himself hardly represents a rupture from the status quo). How it follows that we ought to then support a compulsive liar who has actual blood on her hands in Libya, Honduras, and Ukraine, who has threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran, and who has compared Putin to Hitler while wildly provoking Russia at its doorstep via “the greatest military build-up on the borders of Russia since World War Two,” is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, even if it is surreal that Hillary is accusing Trump of being the “dangerous” one for questioning NATO bellicosity, liberals are right to be concerned about the unbridled racism, sexism, and hateful retrogression of many of Trump’s supporters.
Yet, Trump’s army of malicious stooges will not be disappearing after the election regardless of who wins. On the contrary, this army is actively being produced by an ever more exploitative, brutal, and alienating political-economic system whose politicians are saturated in hypocrisy, venality, and toxic sanctimoniousness. Another President Clinton cannot be expected to meaningfully address, for instance, the rising death rate plaguing poor whites if only because her embrace of global capitalism is largely responsible for it in the first place.
Notably, the election warnings are always a variation on “This is the most important election of our lifetime,” not “The outcome of this election is the most important of our lifetime.” This is more than a semantic point, as election hawkers know that the election’s real significance lies less in its determination of who will take control of the state (a generally parochial contest between sectors of the feuding rich) than in its reaffirmation of the state’s very purpose.
Indeed, it is no surprise that disparate candidates work so hard to cultivate belief in their supporters. Bernie’s “A Future to Believe in” and Trump’s refrain “Believe me” both herald faith — a la “Hope” — as a political value, while Hillary’s slogan “I’m with Her” embraces unilateral loyalty masquerading as solidarity. Presupposing that the system is merely “broken” or “corrupted” (and therefore fixable) rather than intrinsically exploitative and oppressive, such belief in would-be presidents is invariably redirected to a resuscitated belief in “America” itself, a place where no matter how much your standard of living sinks into the toilet, you are still told to believe that “anything is possible.” The real star of election night is always the flag.