Opinion: Election a watershed for nation

Most presidential elections are seen as watershed events that will have a significant and determinative effect on our nation’s future and culture, and to some extent on the world’s future.

This view is often an overstated projection reflecting the fact that people — especially politicians and pundits — view their point in time as uniquely important to history and the fate of the nation.   

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It is the natural narcissism of those who run for office and the people who cover them.

This year, however, they may be right. 

The November election actually will mark a decisive point — a transitional event in the future of our country, the character of our political experience and the direction of world progress.

There probably hasn’t been a presidential election since the contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in which the outcome — the current that will carry the nation forward — will have such a dramatically different impact or involve such a fundamental reshaping of how we are defined.

This is an election where the nature and purposes of the candidates have converged with a flow of events in such a way that the winner could easily deliver a change that will alter our course and form our national character for years to come.

We are moving into an extraordinarily unsettled world.   

There are no longer the anchors of a dominant American economy, or a clear and understandable threat from a rival nation-state power.  

This is a world where the rising economies of developing nations are competing not only for wealth and resources, but for power and status.  

This is the world of the smartphone, where no matter where you live, or how poor you are, you are aware of the world at large and the wealth and way of life of others.  This is a world of Islamic fundamentalism that not only does not subscribe to Western values — it does not tolerate those values.  

It produces a dispersed threat of terrorism and is beginning to merge with the governance of millions of people. 

All these lines of influence are impacting us at the same time that we are choosing a leader.   

In addition, by chance, it seems that the two choices we have as candidates reflect dramatically different approaches to the American experience, and purpose, and how we will deal with the impact of these new currents of influence in our domestic and international role.

President Obama has set out on a path that is unquestionably reacting to this change by proposing a fundamental shift in American governance.  

He suggests we go toward a much larger role for government, a government which places “fairness,” as defined by those who govern, as the test for dealing with the adjustment of our changing economy.  

It is also a government that says America cannot, and probably should not, carry the burden of leading the world. 

Rather, the Obama government says America should step back and allow a more international response to most issues of global concern.   

These are not new approaches. They were tried by other nations — and other groups — at different times during the 20th century.  

They are simply new to the American approach.  

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, says he will push to reawaken what he calls American exceptionalism, through individual initiative and opportunity.

He also seeks to reassert our role in the world as its leader in defining and promoting Western values.   

These are very different views and will lead us to very different places in a very different time.  

The effect of social media, and the knowledge conveyed by the Internet, projects massive amounts of information around the globe in a way that cannot yet be fully comprehended.  

But it is clear that economic awareness and the status of others is now universal and will create great pressure.   

The threat of religiously-driven fundamentalist Islamic movements, with their capacity to obtain and use a weapon of mass destruction, is one unlike any seen before. 

How America is led in the face of this shift — in a world that makes expanding our economic prosperity more challenging, and our national security more uncertain — is what this election will determine.   

The choice between candidates could not be more starkly different in approach and purpose.  The results will affect us in a manner that has not been seen in a long time, and will last for a long time.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.