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Politics, Theater and Mythmaking

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Despite testimonials delivered by GOP nominee Mitt Romney's friends and family, the campaign is still trying to effectively tell his story.

Over the waning days of summer, two political parties presented the nation with two plays, performed in three acts over as many nights. Even in the absence of real drama, it was political theater at its most dramatic.

But what did those performances reveal about the importance of the political narrative, not simply to the 2012 election, but also, perhaps, for one party's ideological future?

A political candidate, explains Robert Landy, a professor of applied psychology and drama therapy at New York University, must create a "super-story," a narrative that will not only frame a candidate's personal character but make the case for him as a leader. In order for the candidate to be successful, Landy says, this super narrative must transcend the specific life story and become a universal tale that reflects the story of America writ large - where the nation was, where the nation is and, crucially, where the nation aspires to be.

"I think that all of us, as human beings, feel insecure and limited; unable to deal with [critical] issues," Landy says. "So if I see a politician telling me I can be better, then I feel there is hope. I can relate and I feel better."

By connecting to the candidate, the public can forget, if only for a moment, that we are "flawed and limited" personally and, perhaps, collectively. We see our best selves reflected back to us in the candidate's super-story, Landy says. 

That is why every political candidate from alderman to president attempts to capitalize on the standard political narrative - a person who overcomes the odds and emerges victorious and able to lead. This is why the life stories that politicians tell are so similar that they sometimes feel interchangeable.


The political life story is, at its heart, a carefully constructed myth like any other, one that is based on reality but is somehow more than reality. 

The political myth has two jobs: one to define the candidate and the other to define the candidate's party. Like every story humans tell, this myth has a clear structure, just like a novel, play or film. Indeed, the political myth's universality is its appeal. People can relate to the story quickly, almost at a primal level, because they know it so well.

At the center of this political narrative is the candidate playing the "hero." Critical problems arise when the candidate cannot step into this role credibly.  Speaking to Bill Moyers in the late 1980s, Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, explained the hero as "someone who has achieved, or done, something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience."

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