Politics, Theater and Mythmaking
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.”
“A hero, properly, is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself,” Campbell says.
Landy applies Campbell’s language directly to the political realm.
“To be successful [in politics, the candidate] has to have a very clear mythological story,” Landy says. “It’s a reality. It’s a super-reality, but it’s a reality.”
GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have such stories to tell, and both conventions attempted to tell those stories, albeit in starkly different ways.
Romney has given over his life to creating a successful business, public service and his church, while Obama has spent his life as a professor, community activist and public official.
Going into the Republican convention, most analysts agreed that the Romney campaign had one main job to do: frame the story of a governor’s son with matinee idol looks who had been born to privilege as one that was relatable to a large audience.
“I think we did a good job,” said Kyle Downey, press secretary for the Republican National Convention.
As Downey describes it, the RNC had a three-point objective, “a three-legged stool,” where it had to explain why Obama and his policies haven’t been and are not right for the country; why Romney and his policies are right for the country; and to tell the country why Romney is uniquely qualified for the job.
“That’s what we based all of our programming around,” he said. Because of Hurricane Isaac, however, Downey says, the convention’s first objective – the Obama critique – had to be woven into the rest of the week.
And despite the heartfelt testimonials delivered by Romney friends at the convention, in some ways the campaign is still trying to communicate Romney’s story.
A couple of weeks after they left Tampa, Fla., vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) suggested to a room of conservative voters in Washington, D.C., that the candidate needs to do more to tell his own story.
“You know, I’m not the only one who has told Mitt that maybe he needs to talk more about himself and his life,” Ryan said at the Values Voter Summit. “It wouldn’t hurt if voters knew more about those little things that reveal a man’s heart and his character.”
“This is a guy who, at the height of a successful business, turned the entire company into a search-and-rescue operation the moment he heard that a colleague’s young daughter was missing,” Ryan told the crowd. “He’s a man who could have easily contented himself with giving donations to needy causes, but everyone who knows him well will tell you that Mitt has always given himself.”
As Ryan’s testimonial hints at, Romney’s super-narrative is actually more dramatic than the story the GOP has crafted but for various reasons it has had to be shackled.
His professional successes, including the health care law enacted when he was governor of Massachusetts and a stunningly successful career at Bain Capital, have become fodder for both campaigns.
In some ways, Obama is trying to use Romney’s own story to create a countermyth.
And Romney’s religious devotion and piety have been underplayed, perhaps over concerns about anti-Mormon prejudice.
As a result, negative coverage of Romney’s reaction to the Libyan attack and a leaked video of his comments to campaign contributors have filled the holes in his narrative.
The contest between the campaigns’ mythmaking, the media narrative and the voters’ perceptions will not be decided until Election Day.
Most polls continue to show a close race, with Obama slightly ahead but failing to reach 50 percent.
What is telling, however, is at a moment when the Republican Party is ready for a strong ideological leader, Romney – the party’s candidate – is not that figure.
“I think the parties are in fundamentally different places,” Sara Fagen, former political director for President George W. Bush, said on Sept. 18 at the Atlantic’s Women of Washington event.
“The Democrats are still very much under the shadow of Bill Clinton. He’s still the ideological father figure in many ways that Democrats reference,” she said. “For us, for Republicans, we are sort of coming to the end of the Reagan era, and [in] this next generation of [Republicans], someone is going to emerge as a leader in our party – maybe it’s Paul Ryan, maybe it’s a [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie – where they take the party forward for 50 years in terms of the ideological discussion that needs to happen in this country, which I think is going to be around entitlement reform and tax reform.”
Tellingly, Fagen did not mention Romney as her party’s ideological leader and the man imbued with the ability to lead the Republican Party into the next generation.
That’s not to say a President Romney couldn’t alter the equation. But candidate Romney has yet to.
The power and importance of narrative is not new. Mythmaking has served American politicians for as long as the republic has existed, from George Washington chopping down the cherry tree to Abraham Lincoln the rail-splitter to John F. Kennedy and PT-109 to Bill Clinton, the man from Hope.
Neither myth nor countermyth can win a race alone.
But in uncertain times, in a tight political contest, during a national ideological tug-of-war, a candidate’s story matters. Whoever controls the story has the best chance at victory.