Spooky U.S. Elections
Is there a connection between U.S. elections and Halloween?
November 5, 2002
Throughout history, human societies have devised various rituals to make sure that vital social functions go off smoothly. Think of the Eskimos, whose whole livelihood depended on whale hunting.
Success or failure in the whale hunt often meant the difference between life and death for the entire community during the Arctic winters that followed the hunting season.
Logically enough, the Eskimos believed the whale to be a deity. Before setting out, men fasted, abstained from sex and went through a variety of cleansing rituals — to make sure that they were worthy to receive the whale.
But many such social rituals known in anthropology tend to be far less serious. For example, before Lent, with its penitence and fasting, Catholic nations usually hold lavish carnivals.
Moreover, permissive Catholic societies — such as Venice before its republic was abolished by Napoleon in 1797 and modern-day Brazil — have become famous for their wild pre-Lent festivities.
They typically feature exotic costumes and parades. Moreover, participants tend to indulge in all manner of sinning — to make sure that they get all their destructive urges out before hunkering down to more restrained behavior during Lent.
The United States, meanwhile, was founded by the Puritans — who frowned at any suggestions of various carnivals, costume balls and other frivolities.
Still, in recent decades, Halloween — the eve of the All Saints' Day — has emerged as a major national holiday.
All Saints’ Day is the celebration of the departed Saints marked by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. It was first celebrated in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day, on November 2, the traditional day of commemoration of the dead, when in the Catholic tradition it is required to visit cemeteries.
Of course, the religious significance of Halloween has long been lost. Most Americans celebrate Halloween — regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
The strange thing about all this is not that kids' costumes have become ever more elaborate. Rather, it is that adults now hold parties — and even march in parades dressed up as Grim Reapers, witches and monsters.
In the gay community in particular, Halloween has become the most important holiday of the year. The annual parade in Greenwich Village in New York City draws thousands of participants and spectators — and is now carried live by several television stations.
Beyond the cultural trends, however, Halloween also always happens in a sanctified policy context. Afterall, in the United States Halloween always precedes by a few days the most important date on the country's annual political calendar.
Election Day is on the first Tuesday in November that follows the first Monday. As far as we know, this closeness between celebrating Halloween and excercising one's civil duty by voting is a mere coincidence.
But maybe there is something else to it. Perhaps the fact that Halloween celebrations have grown so much in recent years reflects a desperate attempt on the part of U.S. society to make sure that its democratic elections are still taken seriously.
The underlying logic is straight forward enough: After citizens get all the buffoonery out of their system, they could then solemnly go to the polls to cast their votes.
If so, the ritual has failed to work. U.S. elections are increasingly turning into a national circus. The ideological distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats has been blurred — as both parties shifted to the right and began to cater to well-healed lobby groups and special interests.
Deprived of serious ideological debates, but flush with campaign contributions from people who want to skew the legislative process in their favor, U.S. political campaigns have grown ever more expensive—even as they get drained of any substance.
The candidates have little choice but to resort to negative advertising. As a result, during the election season political ads on TV start to look more scary than costumed kids going trick-or-treating around the neighborhood.
In fact, as the number of people taking part in various Halloween festivities goes up, the number of people actually voting goes down. But the thesis that Halloween celebration works as a prelude to the elections still works.
The gay community, while being extremely enthusiastic about Halloween, is also one of the most politically active groups in the United States. A recent study found that nearly 90% of gays and lesbians are registered to vote — and nearly 80% voted in the 2000 Presidential elections. Only 54% of all registered voters voted that year.
But then again, in the general shift to the right in U.S. politics, the gay community, along with various ethnic and religious minorities, has the most to lose.