Mythology as applied to American politics need not be a negative concept, treated as a synonym for illusion. Humankind has since the beginning of time has expressed itself through storytelling and symbolic imagery. Lee McDonald wrote in his article, Myth, Politics and Political Science, “Myths are poetry, but a special kind of poetry—the poetry men live by.” Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell echoes this understanding in saying that “the imagery of mythology is symbolic of spiritual powers within us” and warned us that myths are not conceptual but life forming by stating, “We must not confuse mythology with ideology.” Towards the end of his life, Campbell believed that the “old gods” were dying and that a new mythology must emerge symbolizing a better “life forming” vision of the world and humankind’s place in it. This requires more inspired leadership and a national reassessment of who we are as Americans, what we stand for in the 21st century and why it matters. As one woman of color stated in a recent inter-racial dialog I observed, “I know what it’s like to be a citizen of America but I don’t know what it means to be an American anymore.”
The question I wish to explore by examining psychological and mythological frameworks is whether American politics is ineffective with or without mythical elements, or does our politics require the necessity to create an evolving mythology that speaks to our present reality? Perhaps the real distinction is between the potency of live myths and the opaqueness of dead myths leading to its inefficacious use. Clinging to dead myths is politically counterproductive. How does the relationship between the symbolism of such tried and true American iconic images as the collective “melting pot,” and “rugged individualism,” which are polarized versions of our worldview, define us as a nation? How will our mythos help or hamper us as America struggles to adapt to the current global economic reality and transformational changes in a post national future? Does America need a new more fluid mythos taking into account both our recent experiences with terrorism and economic collapse over the past decade and the changes taking place in an increasingly technologically connected world?
Modifying the past to fit present circumstance is at best a sterile and hackneyed antidote for confronting the issues of contemporary life and limits our ability to embrace a more creative and timely frame of reference. As Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth, “We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe.” A transformative mythos must speak with an authentic voice by summoning a collective experience that is historically and culturally relevant in time yet eternal in exemplifying the human condition and potential for renewal. However, the culture of political identity continues to drive the American political process that grinds away defined by fractured relations and contentious posturing as seen by the debt ceiling debate.
Both sides confuse the “map with the territory” a concept first proposed by philosopher Alfred Korzybski and expanded upon by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. In essence, people confuse their own personal maps of the world with the territory the map represents by the conviction that their view is the one and only “truth” and as a result engage in a never ending argument over whose version of the truth is the correct view of reality. No wonder our politics are polarized and compromise virtually impossible. The prospects for adjusting our mythos to meet the challenges of our political, economic and global reality appear slim for the moment.