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.

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