Politics As Mythology

In a brief but provocative essay, George Mason University historian Rick Shenkman plugs his new book How Stupid Are We?: Facing The Truth About The American Voter with an exceedingly cynical and, in my opinion, piercingly accurate observation: Americans refer to symbols and mythologies in their political dialogue because they lack the ability to debate policy with one another.

Prof. Shenkman goes all the way with it. Most voters do not understand the issues of the day, nor do they believe that they do, and offer their own ignorance of issues as a justification for substandard political participation. Indeed, the typical American voter is not particularly interested in the issues of the day. Instead, we use symbols and myths as a form of political shorthand. The two major parties are simply the largest aggregations of myths and symbols.

I remind the Readership of the peculiar definition of the word “myth” that prevails for those who have read their Joseph Campbell: A myth is a story which carries a cultural resonance, frequently moral or religious in tone, and in that sense contributes to and becomes a part of a system of thought and values. The literal truth of a myth is irrelevant to its power. George Washington did not really cut down a cherry tree as a boy. But the myth of that famous story reveals the importance of honesty in society — George’s father embraces young George after he confesses to destroying a very lucrative part of his father’s estate, because he values his son’s honesty and honor much more than the money that the fruit of the tree would have produced. A powerful story, and we don’t particularly need it to be true in order to appreciate its power.

So too in politics. We look at myths, at symbols, not because they are significant, but because they are easy to understand at an emotional level. Obama does not wear a flag pin? He must hate America! John McCain makes an off-color joke about attacking Iran? He must be a warmonger!

This helps me to understand why some people have such a deep opposition to same-sex marriage and even renders that opposition a little bit more palatable. It’s the same reason that certain people seem to so viscerally react when The Wife and I announce that not only do we not have children, we don’t want them. “Marriage” is a myth — a symbol, an idealized story told of how people live their lives together. The “marriage” I speak of is when high school sweethearts decide to tie the knot, have a beautiful storybook wedding, produce 2.4 children, buy a house, send their kids to college, and retire to Florida to complete a lifetime of affection, love, friendship, and companionship together. Same-sex marriage, intentionally childless marriage, even marriage that ends in divorce or possesses an unorthodox wedding — these are things that deviate from the myth. Therefore they must be bad, because they are not the ideal that the myth teaches us we should strive for.

Now, it’s easy to look at people in Jungian archetypes. And labelling people you know as The Knight In Shining Armor, The Nemesis, The Fool, The Maiden, The Party Girl, The Other, The Mentor, The Nurterer, and so on in your own life may make it easy for you to understand what people are doing. but the fact is that we’re all a good deal more ambiguous and multi-faceted than that. We just feel comfortable looking at people that way because that’s how television and the movies have trained us to look at them.

So when we turn our attention to politics, the fact of the matter is that it can get quite complicated to consider issues where competing legitimate interests must be balanced, and that’s where all the action is in political debate. Exactly how much latitude should we give police, military, and intelligence interrogators when trying to extract information from their prisoners? We need to get information from them, to protect our national security, but we also need to treat them humanely to comply with the demands of decency. So which wins? The answer, in the real world, is that these interests must be balanced. But the answer to political mythologists is expressed in black-and-white terms: These are bad people who deserve no protection of their rights. No, these are human beings and using any kind of unpleasantness is torture.

I’ve written previously about the news as mythology. It’s not a big step from there before politics becomes mythology, too. Republicans look at George W. Bush and see the heroic and stalwart protector of his land, a selfless patriot and defender of freedom. Democrats look at George W. Bush and see a craven, corrupt charlatan whose only political abilities are to deceive the voters, manipulate the system, and enrich himself. We’ve seen movies about both those men before. We’ve heard myths about those men before. In the first category we have George Washington, Winston Churchill, Harrison Ford in that movie where he kicked the bad guy off his plane, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Rambo. In the second category we have Huey Long, Elmer Gantry, slick trial lawyers, car salesmen like Cal Worthington and his Dog Spot, dishonest industrialists like, say, Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens.

Are we incapable of understanding nuance and ambiguity? I found myself uncomfortable listening to the audio biography of Thomas Jefferson — a man I wanted very much to admire but in whom I kept finding flaws and fault. So soaring his rhetoric and ideals of equality and liberty, and so tawdry his treatment of his own slaves! Yet both dimensions of the man are part of reality.

So what kind of myths do we rely on in our politics? Are they anything like the myths in the news? I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I want to throw out some stories for your consideration.

First, and directly in the focus of Prof. Shenkman, is the Patriot-Traitor myth.

In this myth, the Republican is a great patriot, a great lover of America and all that America stands for. “America” in this myth is particularly “heartland” America — a midwestern, southern, or mountain-region America made up of small towns, nuclear families, churches and bake sales, kids playing little league, kids graduating from high school, and U.S. flags prominently and plentifully displayed. The Democrat, however, is opposed to all of this; the Democrat is associated with the culture of an urban coastal city, sexual license, weird and subversive ideas from elite universities, disarming the military, poverty, and violence.

Treason or loyalty are visibly manifested in the overt display of traditional symbols of America such as the flag or other objects decorated in red, white, and blue; stars; eagles; military weapons and vehicles like planes, rifles, tanks, and warships; and pictures of members of the military wearing either combat fatigues or dress uniforms. The more of these things the Patriot has, the greater his patriotism; the fewer of these things the Traitor has, the deeper his treason. Treason is manifested in criticism of the government, which is interpreted to be criticism of the country; it is seen in the use of colors other than red, white, and blue; praise for the policies or leaders of a country other than America, particularly one not in a current military alliance with America or one with a strong social welfare system; references to unpleasant parts of American history like the Civil War; and speaking Spanish.

Note that in this myth, the Republican is always the Patriot and the Democrat is always the Traitor; no Democrat can successfully invert this myth to his advantage. The iterations of this myth are plentiful in recent American political history and in fact have been part of politics since at least Nixon’s first run for the White House in 1960. The myth grew overt with the publication of Ann Coulter’s book Treason in which she more or less openly accuses liberals and Democrats of intentionally seeking to harm America. It is being manifested now in the criticism of Obama that the New Yorker tried, unsuccessfully, to satirize. The satire on the magazine cover failed in part because some people lack a sense of humor, or at least lack one subtle enough to understand satire. But it also failed because while it pushed the myth to its extreme, it did nothing to subvert the myth and underestimated the myth’s power. So it did not go over the top, despite the best efforts of the artist to do just that. (I thought it was exquisitely funny, by the way.)

Remember, the factual accuracy of the myth is irrelevant. John McCain does have exemplary military service; highlighting that part of his background would be both literally accurate and a facet of the myth. Obama has a reasonable explanation for not wearing the lapel pin, but it would be quite wrong to say that he does so — or rather, did so — as an act of criticism of America as a nation or even of the government. But the literal untruth of that part of the myth isn’t important; what’s important is that he rejected the symbol of America and therefore symbolically rejected America. Symbols are a big part of how myths work and that’s why this myth has emotional resonance.

However, the Democrats have an exclusive myth of their own: Smart Democrat, Dumb Republican. The Democratic candidate is always smarter than the Republican. The Democrat went to a better school; the Democrat got better grades in school. The Democrat is an expert; the Republican is just a shill for some big business and doesn’t really understand the things he is saying. The Democrat understands that the world is shades of gray and not black and white; the Republican is incapable of comprehending anything but extremes and indeed does not really know his own party’s platform well. The Democrat is glib, smooth, and well-spoken; the Republican stumbles over his words and is at a loss to explain things when put on the spot by intrepid reporters or insightful citizens.

I think I’ve seen or heard this concept in every Presidential election I can remember, going back to Reagan-Carter in 1980. Remember how John Kerry was the smartest man to ever run for President? Remember how Al Gore was the best-qualified man ever to run for President? Remember how George W. Bush was a “C” student? Remember how Bill Clinton was the smartest politician of his generation? Remember how before that, George H.W. Bush couldn’t complete a sentence and Dan Quayle couldn’t even spell “potato”? And now we’re treated to videos of a stammering John McCain and an effortlessly glib Barack Obama, and asked to compare being at the bottom of your class at Annapolis with being the editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Father-figure myths have the advantage of both Jungian and Freudian appeal, and so are especially powerful. I think that Democratic hands much more often than it does Republicans, is the myth of the Loving Father. “I care about you,” says the Loving Father. “I care, I understand, I will help you, because I’ve been there. I’m like you. I’ve been where you are now. And I’m going to do right by you, because that’s the right thing to do.”

A Loving Father stresses his middle-class or even humble origins. It goes back to Andrew Jackson, who said he rose from being a mere soldier to President. Abraham Lincoln was one of the first to exploit this myth in a big way with the log cabin element of his personal myth surviving to this day. (At the time, living in a log cabin meant that you were poor.) The Loving Father combines the archetypes of Horatio Alger (symbolizing personal upward socioeconomic mobility) and the Good Provider, an empathetic and loving father figure who cares about and provides for his children. Bill Clinton was the Loving Father as candidate and as President, and his adherence to this mythic role was responsible for much of his success.

Because the Loving Father promises to provide for his “children,” that tends to involve policies that will expand rather than contract governmental benefits, and therefore it is easier for a Democrat than a Republican to play to this myth. A Republican can be a Loving Father, but must avoid become a Stern Father. The Stern Father is concerned with disciplining his children when they misbehave. He is an authority figure, one who pronounces moral judgments and metes out punishments when the rules are broken. Yes, he meets his responsibilities, but he expects obedience in return. A Democrat is in little danger of becoming a Stern Father because Democrats permit of too much social license.

Messianic imagery is a significant trapping of the Herald Of A New Age. The Herald promises to move America forward into a “new chapter” of its history, rejecting some facet of America’s past and promising “change,” preferably in some sort of nebulous form. Heralds enjoy particular success during tough economic times but significant social strife or foreign policy challenges have supported the messages of Heralds in the past; the Herald generally must be a member of the party not holding the White House to effectively convey a message of change. FDR’s call for the New Deal was playing into America’s desire to escape the Great Depression; Ronald Reagan’s call for a reborn, stronger America built his appeal in the face of a sharp recession and the humiliating hostage crisis in Iran. Barack Obama is this year’s Herald, quite obviously. He promises to move the nation beyond the racial polarizations of our past, and into a brighter, more harmonious and prosperous tomorrow. Whether or not he can deliver on that promise is irrelevant to the myth — the myth gains its power from its call for a new generation to take the reins of power, or at least for a
new way of thinking to prevail.

Campaigns and candidates can fail if they don’t strike good mythic chords with the electorate. Hillary Clinton tried to portray herself as a Trailblazer, but I think that maybe the moment to do that had passed her by, which is why she just missed beating out on Obama’s Herald of a New Age mythos. I know that I consider the idea of a female President somewhat unremarkable. Obviously, I know we’ve never had a female President yet, but I see no good reason not to. Supporting her for no other reason than her gender seems kind of strange to me. Of course, she attracted a large number of supporters and I think she did tap in to a mythos. But being a Trailblazer does not bring along with it a promise of some sort of transformative or even cathartic emotional experience. It means that you’re the first of something to do or be something. This is a repeated myth in the annals of feminism — the first woman to do [X] is usually a well-celebrated personality, and justifiably so. The first woman to be elected to Congress; the first woman on the Supreme Court; the first woman astronaut; and so on. But as our society grows more and more comfortable with the idea of gender equality, the import of the first woman to do something necessarily recedes. It is not remarkable at all, in my mind, to see women in everyday professional roles like judges, police officers, attorneys, doctors, stockbrokers, legislators, governors, military officers, and so on. So to me, it feels like it’s just a matter of time until we do have a woman President, and in that sense the importance of the first woman to be President is rather diminished (at least, to me). But this mythic archetype does have some power, and we’ve seen it before and will see it again. It may not be a feminist trail that is blazed, but there will always be someone who can claim to be the first of something.

And one more, for your consideration: the Passing of the Torch. Symbolically, a great leader makes room for a new leader. This can be generational, or it can be more transformative. But it necessarily involves some leader or heroic figure leaving the scene. Maybe he dies, maybe he retires, maybe he resigns. He must be in a position of honor and respect. The critical feature of this ritual is that he symbolically transfers his power, honor, and leadership to someone else. In mythic terms, the old king’s crown is put on the young prince’s head. For the ritual to work, the old king must be alive — it is not the same ritual if the prince takes the crown off of the old king’s dead body.

Bill Clinton “passed the torch” of his successful and effective Administration to Al Gore. That let Gore wrap himself with the credibility and popularity of his predecessor. Before that, Ronald Reagan passed the torch to George Bush the Elder. It need not be done personally, nor need the passer of the torch be a President. George McGovern is supposed to make a dramatic speech in Denver this year; this may be seen as a passing of the torch of progressive liberalism to Barack Obama. Before he died, Ronald Reagan said some nice things about John McCain; a carefully-edited video montage of those things with images of Reagan and McCain embracing or shaking hands would be a good passing of the torch of conservatism to McCain. (McCain might want to invoke Barry Goldwater, too, seeing as he currently holds Goldwater’s seat in the Senate.) The absence of such a ritual can have significance, also. No one “passed the torch” to Bob Dole when he ran for President in 1996; he just sort of got nominated because, well, it was Bob Dole’s turn.

That’s not to say that a campaign cannot or should not be about policy. Political campaigns are good ways for us to get to debating issues of policy. But because so many of us are not adequately informed, either through lack of interest, ability, or time, we instead rely on these myths as an intellectual and emotional shorthand for our deeper and probably more nuanced feelings about issues. It doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to engage in democracy, at least if what you’re after is actually understanding the will of the electorate. But maybe it’s all we can do in a nation of two hundred million registered voters.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. GIS for “dumb voters.” It was the first one that popped up and I thought, “Perfect.”

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