In politics, our myths are more important than our history. The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress. Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil. In 2008 the nation needed a useable myth that could tap into American populism and turn this potent political force into a conserving power. Obama’s myth has not created a sustainable narrative of America, but it might have weakened the very capacity of the nation to believe in and live as part of a better story of ourselves.
In 1980 America’s best political poet—teller of myths—was Ronald Reagan. With stories about a great people betrayed by a “buddy system of big government, big labor, and big business,” Reagan tapped into an American populism that is both suspicious of those in power as well as deeply proud of the average fellow. In Reagan’s famous “City on a Hill” (the rich metaphor he employed constantly) Americans are naturally good, industrious, gregarious, creative, peaceful—and the hope of the world. These good people have little need for government and to the degree that they construct any institutions, governmental or otherwise, they need to keep their eyes peeled for corruption. Elites pose a fundamental threat to the nation of free people because they have grand designs of how to “engineer” society, often seeking tax money to reshape the very people who supplied the government with its resources.
Many Americans “found” themselves in Reagan’s stories and were drawn into a powerful narrative of American greatness, American idealism, and America’s essential fairness. In an earlier age, these people might have seen the threat to their unique American freedom and equality in a small group of industrialists and other private “interests.” In that context, populism finds government as an instrument of the people’s will to chasten a non-democratic elite. But after the Great Society, after the cultural turmoil of the previous 15 years, after court decisions that reversed popular legislation, Americans who thought of themselves as average were more prone to see a powerful and centralized government as the biggest threat to the American way of life.
This has been our most powerful political myth of the last 30 years. But it is losing its hold—or at least the particular construction of the myth, the way it balances the parts of the American self, and the way it identifies the threat, are not well calibrated to our time. We need a new political poet who can weave a story that vibrates energetically with the experiences of most Americans, that explains our current problems, and that is relentlessly sunny. Americans usually require that their myths express a basic optimism. If our newest version of the American myth is more angry than hopeful then we risk the worst dangers of democracy—populism and demagoguery.
The key language of political myth-making is “return”—return to who we really are and a rejection of those who have taken us away from our cherished values. No political poet can win power by rejecting the creation story. In the beginning….we discover our national soul, national ideals, and national purpose. Intellectual fights over our political origins are essentially battles over the present American self because by articulating a persuasive account of the founding one acquires the means of defending public policies as consonant with a long heritage of national purpose and high ideals.
In America, by and large, populist sentiments—always a part of any democracy—have found positive expressions. Each politically successful grand narrative of America (successful in creating a story national story that functions for at least a generation as paradigmatic) has made a claim about the essential rightness of the founding principles, have exposed ways we can better realize those principles, and have presented the dangers of some elite in light of a tradition worth preserving. In other words, American populism seeks to change while preserving and in this way might be understood as a conservative force. This is the way of American populism but not of democratic populism as such. There is danger in that fact.
During the last several years, self-proclaimed “progressives” have employed the language of return and they are doing all the necessary things to assert that they are the political poets, the myth-makers, of our time. To be successful they must not only tap into the always potent populism in our democracy but to identify those elites who have done us wrong and articulate a new version of a rich and ambiguous story of our national self.
And so, in 2008, widespread desires for political change along with the economic crisis provided the opportunity, even the necessity, for a new version of the American story. The public cannot generate this myth, they can only be formed around the most compelling version they hear. The Obama myth of 2012 was deeply populist, but in a way that is more natural to democracies and largely alien to the American democracy. If the Obama of 2008 was about hope, the newest version is about resentment. Resentment, anger, and a dark form of populism have always had a ready but small audience in America. Many populist movements have come and gone expressing deep resentment to the basic power structure in the United States. But the populism that works—or that has worked—in America is wedded to a story about the essential good will of the nation and the constant need for tiny reforms. Alas, so many people of good will had wanted of this administration a fresh and updated version of an American story of hope and reconciliation only to find the public conversation poisoned by reckless assertions of racism and unrestrained attacks on the successful.
There is no story of America that works politically that isn’t populist, but if our populism becomes bitter and seeks revenge and a fundamental restructuring of economic power and cultural identity, then the narrative must lead to an essentially destructive politics. Inherent in this species of populism is that the goal of the present and the near future is to OVERCOME the past not to live faithfully to it. The call for return to the founding, in the case of the Progressives, amounts to such a condemnation of the range of political and constitutional options as understood by the founders as to become a form of repudiation. Indeed, populism keyed to resentment and revenge must inevitably find national self-loathing the more natural attitude and with it the political imperative to establish something new, something better, something just and noble. In short, to the degree that our populism becomes simply democratic rather than particularly American, we lose the very resources to conserve as we improve, to change as we preserve. Conservatism is impossible in a democratic order when it has no noble history to tell of itself.
We await our myth-maker, our contemporary political poet. The final weeks of the campaign gave some hint that Romney might find a way of telling this story in our time—a story that reclaims the founding, that promises us both return to who we really are as well as progress toward who we want to be. But either he failed as a political poet or the Progressives have undermined all forms of sweet populism (hopeful and respectful of the past) in favor of the bitter populism of class, race, of privilege, of abstract ideals that find no connection to our historically entailed nation. If we are to have a future that is continuous with our past, that seeks to conserve as well as reform, then we need a political myth that tells of a bright future BECAUSE we have a noble past. The resources for such a myth are plentiful—we await the right political poet.