Reason and Myth in American Politics

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Reason and Myth in American Politics

There has been much discussion of late about the correct policies of Congress and the administration over taxes. We have seen on CNN and MSNBC how both sides are agonizing over how much to tax the upper brackets and how to stimulate the economy with tax policy. Each side predicts that coming to the correct decision will advance them in the coming election cycle. But there are many indications from political scientists and commentators that effective policy has little to do with voter behavior. Voters actually tend to vote on party lines, perceived economic status and most importantly, sense of the direction of the country, positive or negative. Even when the application of certain policies is shown to create negative results, the same policies are still embraced because they are objects of faith.

Why is this? It may be because of how our minds work. Malcolm Gladwell in Blink and the Brafmans in Sway have shown that people make decisions on intuition and even irrational impulses,Sway Cover not reason. The best example of this can be found in our contemporary political discourse. Through the doubts expressed by the tea party, the policy ideals of the Democratic Party under the leadership of our current president have been undermined. But what they have used to counter the liberal policies were emotions of revolt and visions of how society should be organized without a large federal government and leaving health and welfare to local agencies, in other words, a conservative narrative. Thus, what seems to matter is the overall myth under which people think and decide, not the details of policy. The ideological basis of the Democratic tax and government philosophy suggests that government should be the referee between the wealthy and less advantaged. But his idea has been overthrown in the public mind by skepticism and fear of big government. Instead, a narrative of the value of rugged individualism and frontier hardiness championed by the tea party has taken over the public consciousness. Our national mindset has lurched in two years from admiration for a New Deal ideal of “good governance” to fear and disgust at big government and ambitious projects.Blink Cover 

One contribution to this change of mind set can be seen in the TLC program Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Here we see the myth of the frontier now located in the outdoor life of Alaska, a life of connection with nature and a hardy individualism. Throughout this visually stunning show we see images of a tough Sarah who shoots bears for sport, hunts caribou and fishes for giant carp. She often contrasts the free life of contact with pristine nature in the wilderness to the stuffy life of the office when she was governor. Sarah Palin is shown to be living the frontier life in a set of dynamic images: she enjoys the challenge of rock climbing, finds the wet and cold of camping easy to endure and feels most alive when she encounters nature in the raw in the form of encounters with bears. She also presents herself as a defender of another elemental aspect of life, the family, “I love Alaska the way I love my family,” she says.

These images are powerful, especially when seen in context of the larger myths of American life, the myths of the frontier, individualism and the purity of life in nature that go back to our founding. I would say that these myths influence what people think politically more than careful calculation. The myths of America shape what we think are worthwhile goals and our conception of what is possible. They represent a bias that Brafman calls “value attribution,” an impulse that filters out new and unimpressive realities and leads us to hold on to older, much valued institutions and practices.

Yet most Americans who watch this show are living in highly urbanized areas, and their challenges have more to do with advanced information work in large organizations. However, there is no myth for the realities of urban life. As a result, the national myths presented by Palin and the tea party will influence citizens on the both the conscious and unconscious level and change the direction of our politics.

The irrational seems to be at the basis of our present political discourse and political life no matter how we cherish rational decision making. We will be swayed to choose policies and leadership that reflect these myths.  Unless the urban citizens can create their own myths to sway others, they will be out of power for a long time. What is hopeful is that myths may be created that might move us toward positive long-terms goals as well as backward toward a nostalgic vision of America. There is the green myth and others to come. We will see what happens, but it is clear that our path forward cannot rely on the use of rational intellect alone by our leaders.

 -- Paul Sweeney