Now let us consider American political mythology in the year of Our Lord 2008.
(Footnote Numero Uno: For those of you interested in a light and frothy post, I sincerely set out today to write one. But this is what came out.)
(Footnote Numero Due: Anyone interested in the bedrock of American myth needs to take a look at Robert Reich's Tales of a New America, which has been on the left hand side of my blog for about three years. I discussed it in this post, if you cannot pick up the book. But if you pick up the book, you will be edified.)
As we move into another intense election home stretch, good stories take on paramount importance. In fact, they trump political solutions. Having a good story is much better for a candidate than having a good health care plan.
Campaigns are like the run-up to the Super Bowl, and the Super Bowl itself is like the presidency.
(Footnote Numero Tre and Last: I promise to drop the football metaphor soon.)
In the presidency and in a football game, there is substance. Actions. Things happen. That affect you and me. I think we'd all agree that the last eight years have affected all of us.
In the campaign, however, there is no possibility of substance. It is life in the subjunctive mood: "If I were president..." "In my administration we would..."
Candidates have plans for substance, just as football teams practice their game plans. But talk is king.
In every election, then, we must make a decision based on rhetoric. Even a person's past record of substance doesn't have to matter. In 1980 America voted for a former governor of California who ran not on his controversial record, but on the idea that "It's morning in America," and that we needed to return to the home comforts of our patriotic past.
At the liberal left university where I went to school in that year, everyone was overjoyed that Ronald Reagan had been nominated on the Republican side. He was a joke in California. A side show. But on Wednesday morning after election Tuesday we saw how important stories are.
This year, Barack Obama has the most inspiring story. There are many reasons for this, including that he himself embodies the diversity of America that America has been trying to convince itself it embraces. But the main reason is that his story has never been told before in this way.
Americans love new stories, which is to say they love old stories that are presented in a fresh, relevant incarnation. Obama scores in three out of four of Robert Reich's traditional story patterns in Tales of a New America, and he turns around the fourth in a way that Reich supports.
First, Obama is a "triumphant individual," a "little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually wins wealth, fame, and honor." He did not grow up rich and privileged, but used his smarts and his guts to get ahead.
Second, Obama appeals to the "benevolent community" that America becomes at times of national crisis. His message of hope and reconciliation calls all of us to return from the crisis of political polarization in which we currently find ourselves. We are best as benevolent community during natural disasters, and the failure of the benevolent community in Hurricane Katrina has been put on President Bush's doorstep.
Third, Obama wants to root out the "rot at the top," the corruption and cyncism of the present administration that many claim drove the invasion of Iraq. If Iraq was a war started for oil by an oil man, or by ideologues who believed in an Unholy American Empire where they and they alone and made the rules, Obama will set that right.
Three out of three.
Now, the fourth story pattern, "The mob at the gates." We Americans are currently feeling assaulted from all sides-- by terrorists, by the global economy, and by illegal immigrants-- and the media and conservatives are doing their best to ratchet up the stress, anxiety, and panic that such an assault can cause. When you're doing a bad job, point to the other guy.
If Obama has been playing up this message, I haven't heard it. Instead, I see a candidate who wants to extend the benevolent community beyond our borders-- to shore up our reputation abroad, among other things-- and who, as the son of a man not born on American soil, understands from close up what it's like to be from immigrant origins.
Reich writes, "The sense of the United States as an ethical exemplar in a deeply flawed world is an abiding aspect of the American mythology. But the current version of this myth has become needlessly exclusive and dangerously insular. We tragically narrow our options when we regard other cultures, until proven otherwise, as parts of a hostile mob that can only be appeased or kept at bay."
This week, Republican nominee John McCain got heavy airplay on NPR for suggesting that maybe the solution in Iraq is to open dialogues and include new partners. In Iraq, at least, the story of the Mob at the Gates is getting a little old.
Obama is new, though he has taken a page from Ronald Reagan's game plan, as well as from Bill Clinton's (remember "The Man From Hope, Arkansas"?). If Obama is not elected, it will not be because his story got low ratings and was cancelled.
No, the most important deciding factor may still be race, though we have been writing a new story of equality for forty years now, and have been testing out a new story name, Diversity.
We shall see, though we may never be able to tell.