Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'most important election of my lifetime'

This is certainly, undoubtedly, unequivocally the most important election in the lifetimes of many politicians. Until the next one.

Matt Rourke/AP
Chelsea Clinton has called this the most important election of her lifetime. She's not alone.

“The most important election of my/our lifetime”: The hyperbolic phrase that partisans trot out before every presidential contest to rally the troops.

The Democratic National Convention saw numerous deployments of the expression from hard-core Donald Trump critics: “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea. Business Insider’s Josh Barro also chimed in: “This is the most important election of my lifetime, and also the strangest, because one candidate clears basic bars of sanity and competence and the other does not.”

Even before the Philadelphia gathering, some activists said they really and truly mean it this time. Writing in The Hill, former congressional staffer and law student Evan Berryhill noted the election is an open-seat contest, with control of the Senate and the likely future of the Supreme Court up for grabs.

“In this election cycle, it may be more than just lip service,” Mr. Berryhill wrote.

We’ve heard it all before. The Los Angeles Times’ Roy Rivenburg in 2004 declared the expression “the most overused superlative ever,” pointing to its use “like a mantra” at that year’s Democratic convention. Indeed, in congressional floor debates, “most important election” first hit a peak 12 years ago, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s awesome CapitolWords.

It spiked again in 2012, the website found. That year, conservative talk-show host and columnist Dennis Prager wrote: “The usual description of presidential elections – ‘the most important election of our lifetime’ – is true this time. In fact, it may be the most important election since the Civil War, and possibly since America’s founding.” He made the same claim two years earlier, in a non-presidential cycle.

Why does it persist? The Washington Post’s Philip Bump concluded that it “takes advantage of one of the quirks of human psychology: immediacy. Nothing is ever more important than what's happening in the moment, both because past emotional peaks fade and because the present is the moment you can affect. Sure, we know the invasion of Normandy was big what with the liberation of Europe and all that, but we can't actually do anything about it. As a call to future action, history isn't that great.”

He found that The New York Times’ earliest usage was in 1856 in reference to a Pennsylvania congressional election, with the Nexis database tracing it back to Nancy Reagan in 1980. “This is the most important election of my life,” Mrs. Reagan said. "The outcome will affect the nation and the world.”

But like many clichés, it’s lost whatever power it once had, the Post’s Callum Borchers said last year: “If anything, it reminds people of all the times they’ve heard this before, discovered that the world didn’t end when their candidate lost, then realized that the stakes maybe weren’t quite as high as they were led to believe.”

In fact, CNBC’s Jeff Cox argued counterintutively, the coming election may be the least important of our lifetime. He pointed to the widespread public loathing for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“You need important candidates to have an important election,” Mr. Cox wrote. “That’s something this one most definitely lacks.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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