The delightful banality of Election Night

The joys (and frustrations) of the election night circus...

A couple of years ago a number of studies tried to suggest that belief in religion was somehow hardwired into our brains, ironically through years of evolution.  The discussion ricocheted back and forth between whether humans had an innate belief in God/faith/whatever (Nature) or whether it was just a learned practice (Nurture).  One of the interesting consequences of this (rather silly) debate was the question: if religion was an innate part of our psychology, what happens if we stop believing…

Well, to me it’s obvious.  Religion has simply been replaced with pop culture.  I am by no means the first to state this rather obvious idea, but let me try and prove it through the intense dedication that is on display in cultural allegiances – especially television.

Every religion has a special time of year where followers can join together and celebrate their joint beliefs in the comfort of each others company, or safe at home knowing that others are spending their time in the same ritualistic way.  Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Vaisakhi… all have special significance for the followers of each religion.

Now think about how important the following dates are for certain cultural subgroups:  The World Cup, Glastonbury, Pride parade, The Oscars, Chelsea Flower Show… each of these events has a secular demographic who is either in attendance of the event or glued to their television and they are just as important to their sense of identity and community as the religious holidays.

But there is no event that is more smug, self-congratulatory, elitist, discriminatory and banal (to outsiders) than an election night.  This is the night when political junkies and psephologists are glued to all-night news broadcasts as politicians and commentators discuss ‘margin seats’ and ‘swing voters’.  I am one of those junkies and I’ve watched the last 10 years of UK and American elections way into the early hours.

What I love about these nights of narcissistic televisual bombast, is that the characters on screen forever moan about voter disengagement yet spend no time at all talking about policy or how the results will effect the public.  Watching an all-night election results show for the first time must be as baffling as watching a rugby match without anyone explaining the rules.  Or maybe a better analogy would be reading a Dr. Seuss book backwards.  All of the individual words would make sense but there would be a context deficit…

Then the editor will have ‘breaking news’ from Sunderland and will cut to a glorified CCTV shot of a decaying school gymnasium with 25-30 people counting voting slips out of plastic boxes tied up with string.  The desperation to make this imagery feel urgent to the average viewer makes the whole exercise laughable.

The reason I evoked the religious metaphor above, is that nights like these have a kind of metaphysical reverence around them.  Grown-ups in expensive suits on national television are reduced to small bickering children over the prospective voter turnout of areas of countries that are never normally discussed in public.

Remember, I’m admitting to actually enjoying these evenings of irrelevant pomp, but even I end up laughing out loud as the commentators with deadly-serious expressions spend all night saying things like “If Labour do well in Hartlepool, and the Conservatives do well in Croydon then UKIP will be laughing by the time the Eastleigh votes get announced…” With absolutely no irony, people like Jacob Rees-Mogg (an MP who once went campaigning with his nanny in a Bentley) are wheeled out to talk about ‘the average voter’.

So another election cycle, another election night.  Much like staying up for a WWE fight or a lunar eclipse, it’s exciting at the time and feels like a hugely important historical event – but come tomorrow, public interest will plummet again and leave junkies like me feeling withdrawals for the next ridiculous fix.

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