Everything ends in nuclear war.
At least, in competitive intercollegiate debate it does. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. Immigration policy, subsidies for renewable energy, legalizing marijuana—they all end in nuclear war. Teams of two from universities all around the country spin stories with intricate chains of argumentative links to prove that their opponent’s position leads to a larger and more devastating nuclear war that happens sooner than their own stance would.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when an impact of “economic devastation” or “regional war” was enough to win you a debate. And then one plucky team decided to extend their impact until a confluence of factors lead to a worldwide nuclear war. The only way to beat them was to have a nuclear war of your own. Soon debates were all about whose nuclear war was more probable, larger, or coming more quickly.When we start using “most important election of a generation” rhetoric to justify our political positions, we’re likely seeking salvation from a politician or political party, instead of Christ.
After graduating from college, I assumed my days of hearing flippant suggestions that nuclear war was coming were over. And then the 2016 election happened, and suddenly everything ends in nuclear war again.
Sometimes it’s explicit, like a flurry of recent headlines: “The Bigger Nuclear Risk: Trump or Clinton?”, “With Hillary as President ‘We are Looking at Nuclear War with Russia and China’”, and “Pro-Clinton group warns of nuclear war if Trump elected.”
Other times, some vague catastrophic threat is implied, often with the use of one important phrase: “this is the most important election of our lifetime!” This phrase has been included in the title of pieces everywhere from The Hill (“Why 2016 may be the most important election of our lifetime”) to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (“From Franklin Graham: The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime”). It’s repeated in Facebook fights and heated exchanges around the country: your vote has the highest stakes you’ve ever seen—or will see.
The truth is that we can’t know if this election is the most important of a generation or a lifetime—only future historians will be able to determine that with any degree of certainty. But the rhetoric of “most important election of our lifetime” (and the almost apocalyptic rhetoric that often accompanies it) is more than non-falsifiable; it’s misguided and dangerous.
Let’s be honest: no one claims this election is the “most important election in a generation” if they don’t already have a candidate they’re supporting. The claim is usually followed by a plea: and because it is so important, vote my way. It’s classic fear-mongering: present and describe a threat so terrifying that it justifies the action being proposed, even if that action is repugnant. In this case, the threat of a lifetime or generation’s worth of consequences is dangled in front of voters, tempting them to overlook all other considerations in favor of avoiding some ominous and destructive threat. And it’s not always as obviously unlikely as global nuclear war—the threat of decades of liberal Supreme Court justices or the death of the Republican party are threats used as justifications for overlooking any number of somewhat less catastrophic considerations. If Clinton or Trump are going to fundamentally alter the world as we know it for the next 60 years, why do their character, minor domestic policy positions, or political or business experience even matter?
Are both candidates pretty terrible? Yes. Is there value to considering the effect of a presidency on both the nuclear launch codes and Supreme Court nominations? Yes. Is this election an important and fairly unique one? Absolutely. Will the country literally explode if Trump is president or will conservatism die forever if Clinton is? No. The implications of a political system with (at least some) built-in accountability and balance of power is that while this election is important, neither horrible option will ensure total destruction. And anyone who suggests it will likely has some ulterior motive.
When someone says that this election is the “most important election of our lifetime,” they are communicating more than a plea to vote, or even to vote wisely. There’s an implicit threat carried along with it—if you don’t vote the “right” way, all the death and destruction of the rest of our lifetime is your fault. The weight of your vote changes considerably—instead of your decision determining who the next president of the United States will be, your vote must determine the trajectory of the next 60 years. Instead of thinking about the election as one season of government, one referendum on political leanings in America, one set of political conditions careening together and producing incredibly unfortunate circumstances, we synthesize all the complications and opportunities down into one idea: if you vote the wrong way, the world will end.
In college debate, impacts like economic devastation, injustice, or systematic violence no longer held any weight because they couldn’t stack up against the threat of global nuclear war. In this presidential election, the rhetoric of “most important election of a generation” is doing a similar thing. It short-circuits every argument against either candidate, because suddenly no impact but total destruction holds any weight.
After several rounds with every college debate ending in nuclear war, things started changing. Teams stopped assuming nuclear war and started asking questions about why we focused so much on an apocalyptic framework. Why don’t we care anymore about preventing a disease from killing a few thousand people? Why don’t we care if a policy is unjust or immoral? Debates began centering around the question of how to frame the debate itself: how much of what we’re saying involves actual possibility and how much is political fear-mongering?
We need to start asking these questions in this election. What issues are we ignoring because they don’t reach catastrophic levels? How pragmatic are we actually supposed to be in our political engagement? What is our vote supposed to communicate?
I’m not advocating specific answers to these questions as much as I’m advocating that we start asking them. This isn’t necessarily a justification for voting third party or for not voting at all, either. It’s a plea for more sensible language and honest rhetoric. We cannot make well-informed decisions about the major-party candidates or come to a well-reasoned justification for voting third-party unless we’re looking at the situation from a balanced perspective, something apocalyptic rhetoric doesn’t usually encourage.
If we ditch this framing, perhaps we could weigh our options more fairly—if the fate of the world as we know it doesn’t depend on my vote, can it communicate something else? Can it communicate a dissatisfaction with all the options? Can it communicate the direction we desire to see a certain party or ideology move towards? Instead of investigating how we got ourselves into this mess and then making informed decisions based on real information and our own convictions, we’re being pressured into making a decision based on fear-mongering and threats. The rhetoric of “most important election of a generation” skews our calculus toward the most extreme thing we can justify and sets the bar for an acceptable candidate so low it’s laughable. Instead of letting trumped-up threats hijack political discourse and apocalyptic rhetoric hold hostage our true options, let’s pursue a fair and accurate assessment of the situation.
We worship a sovereign and loving God, who is bigger than any election or presidential term. When we start using “most important election of a generation” rhetoric to justify our political positions, we’re likely seeking salvation from a politician or political party, instead of Christ. Instead of relying so heavily on political platforms that we use fear-mongering and heightened threats to justify “our side,” we should be relying upon the Creator God of the universe, who is never surprised by the depraved and confusing situations we find ourselves in—including the 2016 election.