Fraying nerves

Something stood out to me in Daniel Bessner’s post-election column at Foreign Exchanges:

2020 was the most important election of our lifetimes.

Just like 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and so on. Since the 1984 presidential elections, as the Google N-gram below suggests, American media has argued that every subsequent election is the most important in history. But, of course, they all can’t be. And to analyze honestly the effects of a given vote, we must be objective about the failures and successes of the administration being replaced. Simply put, was the administration of Donald J. Trump the worst—or, at the very least, among the worst—in US history?

That N-gram is a wild ride. I think anecdotally people are starting to realize that every election lately has become The Most Important Election Of Our Lifetimes (let’s call this “MIEL” for short). We often see this phrase used by Democrats to explain why leftists should spend yet another election cycle sending cash and shutting the fuck up. Just this one more time you guys! We’ll listen to you next time, promise! But to see the rise of MIEL displayed in graph form was, at least to me, eye-opening.

As Bessner says, these elections can’t all be the most important election of our lifetimes. And, if we’re being honest, they haven’t all been. Hyperbole is a useful tool for, say, motivating people to send campaign contributions, or for getting people to watch your cable news programs. But I wonder how good it is for the long term health of a polity. Simply put, I don’t think you can sustain a stable politics while keeping people constantly on edge in this way. On a purely emotional level it seems like it would create panic, exhaustion, and apathy–panic among those who continue to believe the MIEL message and feel heightened anxiety around every election cycle, exhaustion among those who reach the limits of their capacity for panic, and apathy as a sort of backlash among those who begin to recognize the hyperbole.

I’m not a political scientist or behaviorist or anything even remotely in the realm of those disciplines. This just seems bad, like an unending roller coaster ride. Again it’s good for ratings, or donations, but how long can you keep people on edge about politics before something starts to give?


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