Mythic lies and political realities
By George A. Ricker
Two questions always plague those who would rule. The first is how to gain power. The second is how to keep it. Though lots could be said about the role of propaganda in political campaigns, this essay is intended to explore the underlying myths that make that propaganda work and are so effective in helping those in power stay in power.
Mythic lies are the stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves. They are grounded in desires that resonate in most of us. Those stories are used by the powerful to exploit their own advantages and to sustain their position as a ruling elite. By wrapping reality in a tissue of deceptions about our nation and the nature of our society, those lies lead the mass of Americans to think and act in a manner that is inimical to their own best interests but is essential to the maintenance of power for those who have it.
So what are those myths and how do they work?
The Greatest Nation
The first is the myth that tells us we are the greatest nation in the world. This myth tells us that all things American are not just good but better than anything in any other nation. It tells us that we are a people who are superior in all ways to the others who share this planet with us. It tells us that our actions are always just, our motives are always pure, and our success will be assured as long as we continue to believe we are the best and most wonderful society that has ever existed on this planet.
Carl Sandburg ends his poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind with this stanza:
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.
Its a cautionary tale, one that should be learned by every student and memorized by every politician. The dust of ages is all that remains of many civilizations that thought, each in their own time, they were the greatest nations in the world. Such pride always goes before a fall because, no matter how great a state becomes, greatness always contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. When greatness translates into the attitude that our interests are the only interests that matter and our institutions must be the model for all other societies, it creates a dynamic that can only be sustained in the short term and is always destructive in the long.
When the only values we recognize are our values and the only voice we hear is our own voice, its all too easy to persuade ourselves we really are all that matters. Its a useful fiction for those who rule us because it makes it all too easy for them to play on the fear we will lose our status.
The myth of American exceptionalism makes it much easier to arouse the mass of our citizenry to a patriotic fervor that leads blindly to the endorsement of policies and actions that might otherwise be found suspect. The myth is that we only act from the noblest of motives and, therefore, our actions are, by definition, beyond reproach. The reality is much different. But who cares about reality these days?
The second myth, one that dovetails nicely with the first, is the myth of Gods blessing. Our nation, we are told, is especially blessed because God favors us. Religion and nationalism are the two great tribalisms remaining to the dominant nations of the world, and ours is perhaps the best example, among modern industrial states, of the role religious faith plays in supporting and sustaining the rule of political force. Wrapped in the flag and invoking the Christian version of God, which is, after all, the God of the majority, our political leadership increasingly resembles the mullahs who rule Iran today or the biblical kings of old.
Whether by accident or by design, the presidency of George W. Bush increasingly relies on the symbology of religion to tap the religious sentiments of the American people. By playing to the fiction that he is himself Gods choice to lead this nationa fiction that is reinforced by members of the clergy who think to benefit by the arrangement, he has created a level of detachment from responsibility for his actions. After all, how can any American fault a president who is so openly and so vocally proclaiming his desire to do Gods will?
Thus opponents of the Bush administration may be painted in the most vitriolic terms by his supporters. Gods blessings are reserved these days for those on the conservative side of the political divide. The erstwhile loyal opposition is now pilloried as not only disloyal but dishonest and evil. If Bush is characterized as doing the work of the Lord, its not hard to imagine whose work his opponents are doing.
So the mythic lies of an exceptional nation acting with the blessing of the divine work very well together to buttress our national leadership and to protect the interest of the elites who control them and, thereby, rule us. By playing on our fears and our parochialism, they continue to subvert the constitutional democracy we claim to hold so dear and to induce us to accept the corruption and manipulation of our freedoms as essential to the public good.
The Will of the People
The third mythand I think the most important because it confers legitimacy on the whole enterpriseis that whatever else may be said about our nation, it is a democratic republic and acts in accordance with the wishes of the electorate on most issues. According to this myth, our representative government is chiefly concerned with determining the will of the people and, insofar as is possible, acting on it.
The easiest way to maintain political power is to convince the people over whom you exercise it that you are acting in their best interests. One way to do this is by holding elections and letting the people select from among the various candidates, thus choosing their representatives. However, although the people may control the franchise, the folks in charge control the process. It is extremely difficultwell nigh impossiblefor an independent candidate to even make it to the ballot, let alone get the kind of financing and media exposure necessary to conduct a successful campaign.
Ask yourself a question many others have asked. Is it likely that the interests and aspirations of a nation of 280 million people can be fairly represented with only two political parties?
On that basis alone, the fiction becomes apparent because the answer to the question must be a resounding No. The two party system works very well to sustain the political fortunes of those in power and even better to protect the invidual fortunes of their real constituency. However, it is antithetical to genuine democracy and representative government.
Added to our two-party system is the electoral process itself. In many cases those in charge of elections are themselves partisan. The most notorious recent case was that of Katherine Harris, who was Floridas secretary of state (and chief elections officer) at the same time she was co-chair of George W. Bushs Florida campaign. Of course, her boss, Governor Jeb Bush, just happened to be the Republican nominees brother. Regardless of the honesty of those involved, the appearance of collusion and conflict of interest was enough to make the entire process reek.
Bush carried Florida by an eyelash in an election whose outcome is still disputed and in which every possible break that could be given went the Republican candidates way. Had all the votes of Floridians been counted honestly and accurately, I have no doubt Al Gore would have won the state and the election. He had already won the popular vote. A win in Florida would have given him the electoral vote as well.
My purpose is not to rehash past history. It is to point out that the electoral process itself does not honestly serve the will of the majority even if we limit the majority to those who actually vote. Neither of the political parties has any confidence in the system. If they did they would not find it necessary to dispatch thousands of lawyers, as was done in the 2004 presidential election by both parties, to protect the interests of their own candidates and to undermine the interests of the opposition.
Now, with the advent of black box voting and the absence of a paper trail to facilitate accurate recounts in many jurisdictions, the opportunities for corruption and manipulation of the voting process are unprecedented. The most accurate voting method yet devised is the paper ballot, completed by hand and counted manually. Any machine count can be manipulated, and computerized voting is most susceptible of all to manipulation.
One of the claims made by politicians and pundits after every election is the system works. And so it does. But the question we ought to asking ourselves is not whether the system works but for whom.
Mythic lies are especially essential for the maintenance of the sort of corporate state functioning in our nation.
Real change is possible. Stop treating corporations as fictitious persons with rights, exercise more control over what corporations may do and eliminate their participation in politics: all would help to redress a serious imbalance in our society.
Demand nonpartisan operation of all elections and require the opening of the electoral process. This would end the two-party duopoly and turn ownership of the political process over to the people it is supposed to serve.
According to the Declaration of Independence, governmental authority comes from the consent of the governed. Its high time we made that statement a reality.
© 2005 by George A. Ricker