This week has been marked by constant calls for civility. Mitt Romney took the first step, demanding that President Obama end his campaign of “hate” and “division.” Since then, reporters have noted the negative rhetoric of both sides, and pundits have denounced the lack of substantive debate.

But “civility” and “substance” aren’t synonyms for each other. You can have a civil debate about trivial things, or an acrimonious one about vital issues. Believe it or not, we are engaged in the latter. And that’s a good thing.

Neither Romney nor Obama is exaggerating when they say that this election is about the fundamental direction of the country. Despite his moderate demeanor, Romney’s plan for the next four years is a genuinely radical departure from the status quo. Major, across the board tax cuts. Large cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, meant to reduce the scope of the federal government’s obligations. A far reaching “voucher system” for education, which diverts tax dollars to accountability-free private schools, and robs both traditional and charter schools of the resources needed to compete and improve. A smaller Medicaid program that would serve millions fewer people, and deprive seniors, children and the disabled of needed care. New, harsh restrictions on reproductive rights, and judicial picks who would look for ways to turn back the clock on worker protections, anti-discrimination laws, and corporate regulations. And, of course, a complete overhaul of Medicare that would end its promise of guaranteed health care for seniors, and move it to a system where — ultimately — you get the care you can pay for.

Yes, it’s probably not possible to implement all of these changes. But it’s still important to see these as the priorities of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. This is what they want the country to look like.

Obama’s promise to improve the status quo seems almost quaint in comparison. But that’s because his presidency has already seen momentous changes. If the Affordable Care Act survives — and succeeds — it will provide a way for most Americans to get health insurance (edited for accuracy), and place the health care system on a sustainable footing. These are transformative changes that would leave the United States in a vastly different place than it is now.

The same goes for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the much-maligned “stimulus.” As Michael Grunwald details in The New New Deal, the administration made huge investments in alternative energy and new technology. If any of those pay off, they will revolutionize the ways in which we travel and communicate.

Romney has promised to roll all of this back, and implement the radical agenda outlined above. But if Obama wins a second term, the changes he’s set in motion will endure and become a permanent part of the American landscape. This is why the election is so negative. If this were truly a trivial contest over inconsequential things, the campaigns would be less vitriolic in their approach. But because it isn’t, and so much rides on this election, it’s only natural that both campaigns would eventually fight it out in the gutter. Or, put another way, the negativity of this election is simply a sign that both sides are deeply serious about the consequences of victory or defeat.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect. You can find his blog here.