That’s what the playwright David Mamet told guests of the Manhattan Institute last night (via Roger Kimball ). Mamet’s assertion is the kind of grandiose claim we’ve become accustomed to in this campaign. It’s also nonsense that exposes an amazing ignorance of American history.
Here are some of the choices and issues the country faced in the last 152 years:
1876: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes is elected with a minority of the popular vote on the promise to end Reconstruction.
1896: In a deep economic depression, Republican William McKinley defeats the the populist Democratic William Jennings Bryan on a platform of industrial protection and deflationary monetary policy (which is what the issue of silver or gold currency amounted to). McKinley establishes an electoral coalition that would dominate national politics for nearly 30 years.
1916: In the midst of the First World War, Wilson campaigns on a peace platform. We all know what he did after being elected.
1932: In another deep depression, Roosevelt wins a mandate to fundamentally change the relation between citizens and the national government.
1940: Roosevelt pursues and attains an unprecedented third term, which effectively commits the U.S. to participation in the Second World War.
1948: Truman beats Dewey, reinvigorating the FDR coalition on the basis of welfare policies and anti-Communism. In the primaries, Robert Taft is denied the Republican nomination, effectively sidelining non-interventionists and critics of the New Deal.
1972: Nixon defeats McGovern, partly by presenting him as the candidate of the counter-culture. The first “culture war” election, and a major step toward the shift of white ethnics to the GOP.
1980: You remember that one.
I have a hard time believing that these elections were less significant than the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Not coincidentally, Gore Vidal wrote delightful novels about several of them. By historical standards, I’d say that today’s election is comparable in importance to the titanic clash between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Given the quality of the candidates, that’s a big relief.