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The most important election of our lifetime, part 4

Or is it part 6? If every election carries weight, the upcoming midterms feel like an anchor tethered to cinder blocks.

"Depending on what happens Tuesday, it could be the last free and fair election of our lifetime."PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

In an ill-fated attempt to sway women voters who had supported Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid in 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. That was the first time I heard the warning, “This is the most important election of our lifetime.”

It wasn’t simply that a lot of people wanted to see Barack Obama become this nation’s first Black president. Many found it alarming that Palin, then Alaska’s governor, was manifestly unprepared to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, especially given concerns about McCain’s age and health. That was enough to help propel Obama into the White House and history, disaster narrowly avoided.


That every election with national implications since 2008 has carried the mantle of being “the most important” ever says a lot about this perilous time in this country. Midterm elections are usually low-participation affairs, but that wasn’t the case in 2018, halfway through Donald Trump’s calamitous term. Turnout was the highest in a century, flipping control of the House to Democrats.

Expect that record to fall. This year, more than 20 million people have already cast their ballots in early voting. Because of Trump’s lies about the fair and overwhelmingly fraud-free 2020 presidential election, the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection those lies inflamed, and the spreading stain of election denialism among Republican nominees, what happens on Tuesday feels deeply consequential. In a televised speech last week, President Biden made that point again. He offered not an endorsement but a plea for voters to save a democracy being battered from within its borders by political extremists.

After referencing last week’s vicious assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by a far-right ideology-driven intruder who broke into their San Francisco home, Biden said Americans are “facing a defining moment, an inflection point.”


Denouncing political violence, voter intimidation, and the nearly 300 Republican election deniers on the ballot, Biden said, “Too many people have sacrificed too much for too many years for us to walk away from the American project and democracy. Because we’ve enjoyed our freedoms for so long, it’s easy to think they’ll always be with us no matter what. But that isn’t true today. In our bones, we know democracy is at risk. But we also know this. It’s within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy.”

Like no other president in modern times, Biden has spent a considerable chunk of his White House tenure defending democracy from white domestic extremism. Certainly, it’s always existed — it’s embedded in this nation’s DNA — but never before has a former president been its most open and ardent proponent. Never before have so many nominees, all Republican, refused to say whether they will accept a losing result when all the votes are counted.

Predictably, voters say the economy is their biggest concern, but democracy is also heavy on their minds. And while Republican nominees have offered no plans to fight inflation, some are busy crafting strategies to undercut elections and damage democracy.

At a recent campaign event, Tim Michels, Wisconsin’s Trump-endorsed Republican gubernatorial nominee, said, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” A 2020 election denier, Michels has dodged questions about whether, if he is elected governor, he would certify the presidential election results for a Democrat.


That any nominee has to be asked such a question — and then opts not to answer — proves that democracy’s guardrails are already in an advanced state of decay.

In 2020, when Biden was officially declared the winner after days of uncertainty, cities and towns across the country erupted into spontaneous celebrations. If the election’s outcome wasn’t a cure for all ills, it at least felt like breezes were blowing us in the right direction.

After the insurrection and fears of more violence, any relief has curdled into panic. If every election carries a certain weight, these midterms are like an anchor tethered to cinder blocks. Biden does not want to be the president who saw democracy, as imperfect and incomplete as it is, die on his watch.

In his speech, the president asked all Americans “to meet this moment of national and generational importance. We must vote knowing what’s at stake and not just the policy of the moment, but institutions that have held us together as we’ve sought a more perfect union are also at stake. We must vote knowing who we have been, what we’re at risk of becoming.”

This is an important election. Time will tell whether it’s the most important we’ll probably see. But this much is already true — depending on what happens Tuesday, it could be the last time this nation ever gets close to a fair election in our lifetime.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.