This brilliant strategy, I’ve learned, is also the secret to asserting that the next presidential election is the most important in a generation/our lifetime/ever. You can’t just say it. You have to admit that your claim sounds like a cliché (a self-aware wink is optional here), tell your audience that in this case it’s actually not, then make your grandiose proclamation anyway.
Rolling Stone is merely the latest publication to apply what I’m calling the No Offense Principle of Stated Electoral Importance. (Okay, it’s a little clunky, but it’s better than anything you’d come up with. No offense.)
Politico used it in 2012:
Most every campaign cycle, it seems, presidential candidates and political pundits claim this election is the most important one ever. It’s become something of a cliché in American politics. This time, however, they just might be correct.
So did RealClearPolitics:
The election in November is therefore a plebiscite on the American Revolution. The usual description of presidential elections — "the most important in our lifetime" — is true this time. In fact, it may be the most important election since the Civil War, and possibly since America's founding.
And FrontPage Magazine, too:
It’s a cliché to say that an upcoming presidential election is the most important one of our time. But sometimes a cliché is justified; in fact, I’ll up the ante by asserting that the presidential election two weeks away will be the most critical in U.S. history.
You get the idea. It is becoming standard practice, when breaking out the most-important-election cliché, to attempt to shield yourself from mockery by saying, “Hey, just so everyone knows, I’m aware that this is a cliché.” The cliché cover is itself now a cliché.
So, does it work? The purpose, of course, is to add weight to a label people reflexively dismiss as hyperbolic. Politicians, aides and media have touted the singular importance of presidential elections since at least 1864, so it’s hard to take them seriously anymore. (Incidentally, that Civil War-era matchup between Abraham Lincoln and pro-slavery George McClellan is a legit contender for the “most important” title. Just saying.)
I suppose it’s better to concede that a claim has been made many times before than to pass it off as an original idea. But it doesn’t really make the argument more convincing.
If anything, it reminds people of all the times they’ve heard this before, discovered that the world didn’t end when their candidate lost, then realized that the stakes maybe weren’t quite as high as they were led to believe.