The Mardi Gras run-up and the Super Bowl celebrations were routinely described as diversions that kept residents of New Orleans from participating in municipal elections. Indeed, only about a third of registered voters cast ballots.However, I would argue that neither Carnival parades nor the Super Bowl distracted citizens from exercising the vote. Election Day was not a secretive affair; the thousands of campaign lawn signs, bumpers stickers, news reports, junk mailers, billboards and robo-calls were helpful enough reminders.
Rather, the elections were a distraction from the other celebrations.
New Orleans festivals are far more reflective of civic participation and city pride than any election for mayor.
The Saints and Carnival are phenomena dependent upon spontaneous grassroots participation. Both take on incredible symbolic value as proving grounds for civic loyalty and popular unity. While “innocence” might not be the right word to describe it, there is some measure of perceived purity behind the simultaneously collective and deeply personal connection involved in this Saints fever or in any Mardi Gras celebration.
That description, if you agree with it, contrasts with how you might normally describe local elections. Perhaps the notoriously impure, crooked and nefarious form of politics practiced in New Orleans was not as appealing as the prospect of joining friends, families, neighbors and strangers on the streets in euphoric harmony.
Why would anyone want to deal with the most regularly disillusioning thing about New Orleans amid one of the most inspiring and exciting two-week periods in New Orleans history?
I’d argue that one’s decision to forgo voting in this hasty municipal election after years of governmental inattentiveness and malice to instead party with the people represents an inherent and compelling political statement in its own right.
Mitch Landrieu has attempted to couch his election as further evidence of the euphoric oneness of the city. That is not necessarily an accurate interpretation. While Landrieu’s electoral mandate is impressive to the extent that he captured large majorities of voters across every neighborhood and demographic classification, the truly abysmal turnout totals do not support the unity theory. Rather, there seems to be just as much abject disenchantment as unbridled joy, if not more, as least as far as municipal politics is concerned.
None of this will stop the mayor-elect from riding high, nor should it.
The city’s psyche is in as good a shape as it has been and maybe as good as it will ever be. That won’t begin to fix one of the most persistently challenging urban environments in the country, but it might buy its new mayor some patience or a mulligan or two.