Why are Halloween and Election Day always so close to each other?

Is it because they both make jokes out of our real fears?

My whole life, I’ve heard that the Democrats are the party of hope and the Republicans are the party of fear. Not this election. This time, the only thing I hear from candidates from either party is: “Look at how bad the person from this other party is!!! They stink!” Not I’m good, but They’re bad.

Boogeymen everywhere! Scary!!!!

They call it the Seinfeld Election, or the chaos election, but one thing is clear: whoever wins, our fears don’t go away. It’s like it’s Halloween all year – except no one’s laughing about it.

Lately my students seem to have agreed that the ultimate goal of a humanities education should be to produce independent thinkers. I agree, but you don’t produce an independent thinker by shoving a person out of a classroom on the first day while saying, “Go, think independently.” As a teacher, the point is to supply them with as many tools and options as you can – so they can decide what they can change, what they can’t change, and how to know the difference. In practice, this means not simply showing them how to think, but what to think about – a Grand Bazaar of ideas that includes democracy, Marxism, Freudianism, humanism, feminism, critical race theory, the study of religions, and the history of science. People pick and choose amongst these, as they eventually pick and choose amongst professions – or perhaps they morph them and/or transcend them in a manner no one could have predicted.

Halloween is my favorite holiday for any reasons, but one of them is to see the beauty of choice. People choose to dress up as witches, wizards, princesses, pirates, heroes, villains. People twist up characters and flip the script in unexpected ways. They choose which houses to visit. At the end of the night, they’ve got a bag of candy, and they choose which candy to eat. People decorate jack-o’-lanterns in all sorts of creative ways (see above). The whole thing is a panoply of pluralism, almost like a well-stocked refrigerator, or a snapshot of all the cars on the freeway, or a look at the apps on your phone, or a list of your favorite internet sites, or the list of ideas that our best students choose from. Despite (because of?) its pagan origins, there’s something about the holiday that underlines the American Dream – the freedom to choose what you like.

But there’s still this one aspect of American life where we don’t get to choose what we like, and that’s politics. There, we can only choose what we don’t like. There, we’re told that we have to settle for the lesser of two evils. Evil – oooooooo!! Everything in politics is a zero-sum game where if one wins, the other loses. The last zero-sum game in our American lives is the one where the money involved is the furthest from zero.

This Tuesday, if you watch a TV news channel, you’re going to hear “Big Night for Republicans” about 20 times. Because the media wants us to feel we have a choice. The media, like us, is invested in the American Dream. The media, like us, is whistling past a graveyard of institutions built for us by previous generations, pretending that we’re not letting them slip away even as their bodies grow cold.

We need Election Day to be more like Halloween. We need a ballot more like the one India just had. When you have twenty parties jockeying for your attention, it’s not enough to say “That guy sucks!” It’s not enough to claim that if you vote for so-and-so, you’ll just be – say this in your best Kang and Kodos voice – WASTING YOUR VOTE.

We can do better. And we will. For some reason, I’m thinking of the New York City-New Jersey area two years ago, just after Hurricane Sandy. Sandy ruined a few Halloweens, and a lot more people chose to ruin their own Halloweens just because they didn’t want to take risks after Sandy. But a lot of people refused to let Sandy take away their holiday. They dressed up, they went out there, they rang doorbells, they shouted “Happy Halloween”! They reminded me of the Whos in Whoville after the Grinch took away their presents. Nothing was going to prevent them from celebrating Christmas.

One of these days, we’re going to get sick of this two-party Grinch system.