Okay, so this was an exciting election. In some counties in Florida and California, voter turnout was as high as 80-85% of registered voters. When you consider how many people may be double-registered, this is a dizzying amount. Overall voter turn-out for this election may or may not be higher than any since the sixties, but even then, highest voter turn-out in fifty years is nothing to sneeze at.
When the voter-turnout was higher, the 1960 and 1964 elections, the U.S. was experiencing extreme turmoil--a generational gap was redefining conservative and liberal politics, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were entering a new phase of the Cold War, the Vietnam War was starting, the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements were forming. Voting mattered.
In fact, if you look at the instances of high voter turnout, it's not always a positive sign. Countries like Kosovo and Argentina have high voter turnout; countries were everything could go wrong. In fact, there's an economic equation for voter turn-out:
PB +D > C
C is, of course, cost. D is any warm, fuzzy democratic civic feeling you get from voting (and, presumably, those "I Voted" stickers) while P is the probablity that your vote will have an impact and B represents the benefit you'll derive from your vote. So looking at these factors, how do we describe the high voter turnout in this last election?
Probablity of vote having an impact in the national election was low, both for chronic and current reasons; the electoral college system always keeps individual votes low and as more people vote, the impact of an individual vote goes down. Civic warm fuzzies may be higher, especially with the "cool factor" of Obama's campaign, but so is the cost as voters have had to wait as long at seven hours to cast a vote. What's left? Perceived benefit.
People saw this last election as vital, which is good for the individual candidates, but bad for American democracy in general. This is ironic, I know, but there is a compelling argument that says that low voter turnout reflects a faith in our leaders. When Bush was running against Gore, I remember telling my arguing family that it doesn't matter who wins--the country's run by experts and committees and the president doesn't have that much power, really. Now, I feel a little different about that statement.
It's possible, I suppose, that before voter turnout was low (especially among some demographics) because they felt that their P or B was so low from perceived inequality that it wasn't worth voting before, but I think that there's sufficient rhetorical evidence that people think this election was more vital than perhaps earlier elections. And that means we're scared of the consequences of the election of the other guy.
If we weren't, we would have just stayed home.