Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

A Democratic Mythic?

Why imagination matters in politics.

Stephen K. White

Protestors’ signs, Washington, DC, January 6, 2021; Shutterstock.

At a recent international conference on myth and politics, the first speaker raised a perennial question: “Should we de-mythologize politics?”11xShai Lavi, introductory remarks, “The Force of Myth: Authority, Illusion, and Critique in Modern Imaginaries” an online conference of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, June 2021, https://www.vanleer.org.il/en/events/force-of-myth-authority-illusion-and-critique-in-modern-imaginaries/. The answer for many, particularly those who affirm democratic values, has traditionally been “yes.” Myth is deadly to democracy. It undermines the connection between reason and politics crucial to this form of political order, replacing it with appeals to affect and imagination that carry us inevitably toward irrationalism. The history of the twentieth century, with its experience of the racial myths of fascism and the “enemy of the people” myths of totalitarian communism, shows that this is a danger not to be taken lightly. An affirmative answer to the speaker’s question seems not only reasonable but prudent.

But perhaps the strategy of pure prophylaxis is not adequate. Can we really expect to divorce politics from affect and imagination? If not, then maybe we need to reflect more on what a “democratic mythic” might involve. I use this unusual phrase, rather than “democratic myth,” because the word myth tends to imply a kind of fixedness. Myths in the classical sense are typically seen as bounded narratives with larger-than-life characters (for example, the myth of Romulus and Remus). Other myths don’t involve such characters, but they share an apparent resistance to change, rooted in some prejudice to which people seem uncritically attached (for example, the myth of the welfare mother who drives a Cadillac to pick up her check).22xTae-Yeoun Keum, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 5–10. But scholars of myth have increasingly called attention to the fact that at least some myths, over time, are “a process rather than an object.”33xChiara Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 8. These myths are quite pliable, in the sense that their transmission involves mutation and continual reappropriation, as successive generations go through the process of trying to draw significance from them for their present circumstances. In effect, such myths are less like frozen entities than things always in motion. I want to argue that this is particularly the case when we reflect on democracy, which calls all citizens to the ongoing task of interpretation. In my use of mythic rather than myth, I intend to focus attention on this dynamic, interpretive quality.

Mythic and Mimesis

A useful way to elucidate the characteristics of a democratic mythic is offered by the recent controversy in Richmond, Virginia, over monuments to the Confederacy. The removal of Confederate statues from cities in the South is hardly news these days. But the case of Richmond is distinctive. As the capital of the Confederacy, it has always had special symbolic significance. At issue was not just an individual statue honoring a Confederate leader but an entire thoroughfare—Monument Avenue—dedicated to what was perhaps the most powerful visual idealization of the Lost Cause: the myth, promoted with particular vociferousness in the decades after Reconstruction, that the Civil War was less about the preservation of chattel slavery than an honorable defense of states’ rights. On the widest and most beautiful boulevard in the city, in a stretch of ten unusually long blocks, there stood until only recently five massive, well-spaced statues of various Confederate grandees, military and political. Erected in the Jim Crow era, the statues were literally monumental, almost godlike, the one of Robert E. Lee towering fully sixty feet above the street. Collectively, the statues had a palpable, unmistakable significance: the truth and rectitude of the Southern cause made solid and unalterable in time. The scene portrayed in this outdoor drama was a denial of—even a direct rebuke to—the egalitarian principles that were at stake in the war. As such, it formed part of an antidemocratic mythic that persisted well beyond the abolition of slavery, and not only in the South.

Beginning in 2020, after persistent protests, the statues on the Monument Avenue median were progressively removed as part of an ongoing effort to challenge and debunk the Lost Cause myth and expose its antidemocratic intent. Without questioning the importance of those removals, I want to call attention to a different, more creative way of countering the deleterious legacy those statues represented, a way that operates in the counter-register of a democratic mythic.

Among the five statues, one of the more arresting was that of the cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart. Portrayed in plumed hat and astride a warhorse with one foreleg raised, Stuart is turning slightly backward in the saddle, as if ordering his subordinates into battle. The cause of the Confederacy is presented here as a purely heroic military struggle, requiring fortitude and a sense of the providential righteousness of its cause.

(Top) Statue of J.E.B. Stuart, Richmond, Virginia, public domain, photograph by Hal Jespersen; (bottom) Rumors of War, 2019, by Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Purchased with funds provided by Virginia Sargeant Reynolds in memory of her husband, Richard S. Reynolds, Jr., by exchange, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr., Angel and Tom Papa, Katherine and Steven Markel, and additional private donors, 2019. Photograph by Stephen K. White.

At the end of 2019, a new statue appeared not far from Monument Avenue. The artist, Kehinde Wiley, whose efforts were funded in part by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, had produced Rumors of War, a work that creates its effect through its clearly intended contrast with the Stuart statue. Wiley’s bronze is similarly imposing. Like Stuart, the audacious rider is astride a great steed, its stance resembling that of Stuart’s mount. But Wiley’s subject is a modern young African American with dreadlocks, jeans, and tennis shoes. This figure simultaneously brings a frozen mythic to life and transforms the “fantastic” subject into a contemporary, ordinary black man who, had he lived in J.E.B. Stuart’s time, would have been one of those trapped in subordination and invisibility beneath the settled, official myth of the Confederacy. Here, though, an ordinary person from the ranks of those who, not that long ago, were officially invisible morphs into a figure of aristocratic, military bearing even while retaining the markings of his democratic origins.

Wiley’s statue directly represents and recalls African Americans’ historic struggles against enslavement and subsequent second-class citizenship. Its heroically presented subject has no name; he is essentially an anonymous common man. Implied in his backward-turning figuration is an appeal to others to identify with him and join in his struggle. He turns not to command soldiers, like Stuart, but to invite others to join a democratic community including but extending beyond his fellow African Americans.

The title of the statue, Rumors of War, suggests that our political situation is fraught with uncertainty and that one should engage with it with caution, care, and even humility. Is there a “war” in America, or something else? Who stands where? What should we do? In such implied questions, we encounter the challenge of participation in a democratic community: the shared obligation of its members to interpret what is at issue and decide what is to be done. There are no subordinates here, ordered by the commanding gaze of authority; there are only other citizens beckoned by a common man to take up their role in the drama of democratic participation. Depicting an ordinary hero as he takes up this role, the statue conveys openness and uncertainty, rather than authority and certitude. This combining of muscularity and audacity with a sense of vulnerability and precariousness is not a defect of democracy but a crucial feature of it, confronting all citizens with the challenges of interpretation, judgment, and action.44xKriston Capps, “Kehinde Wiley’s Anti-Confederate Memorial,” The New Yorker, December 24, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/kehinde-wileys-anti-confederate-memorial.

Wiley’s work is a powerful aesthetic embodiment of the democratic mythic. It renders palpable the abstract meanings of citizenship in a democratic society by rendering the common person heroic. More specifically, it confronts this generalized figure, who is at once both someone and everyone, with a triple responsibility: to act forcefully to resist oppression, to shoulder the shared burdens of interpretation and judgment within a democratic community, and to acknowledge that this burden requires an enduring sense of the fallibility of those judgments.

But Wiley’s statue is also rather atypical—and thus a bit likely to misdirect us—in that it so fully captures the sense of a democratic mythic. Typically, whether they are aesthetic representations, historical events, or important documents, exemplary scenes embody this mythic only partially. We sense the incompleteness because we have an inchoate, underlying grasp of what is at the core of democracy, a constellation of general intuitions, conceptual and affective. It is in relation to this latent sense that particular exemplary scenes strike us as more-or-less adequate in their signification.

Indeed, the dynamism of the democratic mythic is precisely that interplay between the specific scenes that strike us as exemplary and our underlying sense of the moral core of democracy. We give continued life to a democratic mythic in working back and forth between these two levels, as we try to come to terms with the challenges and dangers of the political world around us. This process does not just encourage reverence for fixed, traditional values but also opens those values to critical interpretation and elaboration. This occurs with an exemplary scene such as Wiley’s, but even more with scenes that only partially reflect the full democratic mythic precisely because they invite further critical reflection.

The Two Faces of Democracy

As we confront contemporary political issues, the mythic evolves in critical interactions between specific exemplary scenes that appeal to our imagination, on the one hand, and a more implicit, abstract one that we might call an “originary” scene, on the other. The latter carries our underlying sense of the central qualities of democracy. It embodies an essential array of intuitions we have about political life that provides a core sense of what freedom and equality mean, which in turn animates our understanding of the other ideals and practices of democratic life. “Originary” here signifies not some metaphysical foundation, but rather the historically evolving, conceptual, and affective basis for our reactions to events that strike us as democratically significant. The resilience of this originary scene depends on nothing more (or less) than our memory and imagination, as well as our courage to vivify it continually.

The implicit presence and role of such an underlying scene is especially evident when we reflect on iconic historical events. For example, we see an important aspect of democracy in such historic scenes as the meetings of the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention. But these scenes highlight only the deliberative face of democracy. A contrasting, second face of democracy is represented in the exemplary scene of the Boston Tea Party, in which the resistance of ordinary people is the focus. But we embrace this more agonistic face of democracy only if we share the sense that the confrontation is justified—as resistance against tyranny. That justification was made explicit in the Declaration of Independence, which submitted the claims of the rebellion to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” We recognize that the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention, on the one hand, and the Boston Tea Party, on the other, are separately exemplary, but we also acknowledge that each captures only a partial aspect of democratic significance. We understand each scene only against a broader, implicit originary scene, informed by the concept of what might be called “the moral equality of voice.”55xMolly F. Scudder and Stephen K. White, The Two Faces of Democracy: Decentering Agonism and Deliberation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), chaps. 5 and 6. That concept includes and validates the common people’s voice of resistance, when their forceful “no-saying” is understood by others as a stand against injustice. That voice acquires full legitimacy, in other words, only if the assertion of liberty is accompanied by at least an implicit appeal to a never fully determinate audience that has equal status—and equal voice—in judging the validity of the claim of harm.

A Policed Myth

With varying degrees of success, the dynamic, interactive quality of a true democratic mythic resists the efforts of ideologues to shut down or “freeze” certain elements of the mythic for purposes that might described as propagandistic. That such ideologues often succeed in aligning their politics with rigid interpretations of historical or aesthetic scenes should remind us of the more harmful uses of myth in the political realm. Today, we see that danger playing out in the attempts by right-wing populists to commandeer the democratic imagination by claiming mythic status for the January 6, 2021, insurrection. “If you think about what our Declaration of Independence says, it says to overthrow tyrants,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene declared in a fairly typical rant, defending the rioters. “There is a clear difference,” she continued, “between January 6 and the Marxist, Communist revolution the Antifa, BLM, Democrat ground troops waged on the American people in 2020.”66xGreene made these remarks on October 26, 2021, on War Room, a podcast by Steve Bannon. She is quoted in Josephine Harvey, “Marjorie Taylor Greene Claims Declaration of Independence Justifies Jan. 6 Attack,” HuffPost.com, October 26, 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/marjorie-taylor-greene-defends-jan-6_n_617880c2e4b079111a5daf0f.

The ignominious January 6 insurrection certainly involved actions that could be used to construct a democratic mythic, including images of the common people entering and occupying the chambers of the elite in the Capitol building. Yet this act of supposedly democratic resistance was striking in its lack of any acknowledgment of other voices and their right to interpret the political reality. The insurrectionists largely styled themselves as militarized fighters, clad in tactical gear, and with a set strategy, unquestioningly defending Donald Trump’s fact-resistant assertions that the 2020 election had been “stolen”—claims that simply ignored “a decent respect” for the larger context of democratic opinion and the actual election outcome. The astounding denial of established facts and other legitimate views (and votes) by those attempting to symbolically frame January 6 as a democratic act produces nothing other than a policed myth.

In politics, attempts to control the mythic, to have a scene or event mean just what we want it to mean, are not unusual, though perhaps not so brazen as the efforts of those attempting to dress up the antidemocratic riot of January 6. The recent conservative political movement that styled itself as the Tea Party proudly associated itself with the events of 1773, when a group of American colonists disguised as Mohawks dumped tea into Boston Harbor to protest the increasingly tyrannical character of British rule. Americans generally consider the episode a venerable part of their democratic mythic, but its adoption by the Tea Party movement in 2009 equated the threat of eighteenth-century British tyranny with the “threat” posed by the Obama administration, an equivalence more asserted than argued (and effectively so at a time when such closed-circuit claims are propagated and reinforced by the echo chambers of highly partisan cable news channels and equally dissent-free social media). I say this not to defend some idea of the unassailable mythic purity of an important historical event against modern “perversions” of its meaning. The Boston Tea Party may continue to inspire in a democratic sense, but seeing it as part of our democratic mythic requires that we consider reinterpretations that throw new, perhaps more ambivalent, light on its significance.

Any deployment of the historical event in Boston as justification for one’s authority to speak in the name of “the people” opens up a range of questions that contemporary populists assiduously avoid. Those who dumped the tea in 1773 were disguised as Native Americans. Who, then, was really speaking and acting for “the people” in that action? One intention of the disguise was to show that the participants were no longer British subjects but, instead, true Americans ferociously attached to their freedom.77xFor the full range of “mixed meanings” carried by the disguise, see Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 141–60. The rebels thereby embraced an ambiguous self-image, unintentionally raising the question of who, indeed, were the true American “people”: the white men, the Mohawks, both? The participants claimed to represent “the people” even while intending to mean only the white male inhabitants of the colonies. Those who today drape their movement in this mythic figuration expose its underlying contradictions but fail or refuse to acknowledge them. To persist in valorizing such selectively frozen historical moments is to move increasingly onto the terrain of an antidemocratic mythic.

A search for common ground is always implicit in a serious commitment to the ongoing work of a democratic mythic. This can be easily forgotten today, when those on both the right and the left react too precipitously to the challenge of their political opponents and adopt a stance that, from the start, categorically divides the political world into “friends” and “enemies,” each seeking simply to subdue the other. This rush to match the perceived toughness of the other side is increasingly justified by appeals to the thought of the twentieth-century German political theorist Carl Schmitt, infamously known as Hitler’s jurist.88xAlex Pareene, “Give War a Chance: In Search of the Democratic Party’s Fighting Spirit,” The New Republic, June 20, 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/154113/democratic-party-fighting-spirit-give-war-chance. His world-cleaving “decisionism” has found disciples through its promise to simplify and reinvigorate our political life in sweeping fashion, but it would do so only by denying both the elements and the dynamism of the democratic mythic, including its requirement to keep humility in mind when speaking out.99xFor a fuller presentation of this critique of Schmitt and his contemporary followers, see Scudder and White, The Two Faces of Democracy, chap. 4. For those who embrace the democratic mythic, resorting to Schmittean decisionism may be necessary in extreme situations, but it should be the last resort, arrived at only reluctantly, in a responsive, step-by-step fashion. A political ethos grounded in the democratic mythic should continually encourage us to engage opponents as if they share the core intuitions of that mythic. It is up to one’s opponents, in pursuit of their political goals, either to refuse or to reaffirm these intuitions. Their speech and action determine the possibility of further democratic engagement that might carry forward that evolving “we” of the democratic imagination. Whether they do so or not, it should be clear that positive political engagement does not have to rely from the start on banning the role of myth from democratic life, but, rather, on understanding what distinguishes a true democratic mythic from its reductively propagandistic uses and abuses.