The Importance of Myths in American Politics
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10 Historically Speaking · July/August 2008 The Importance of Myths in American Politics" Rick Shenkman« If the people believe there's an imaginary river out there, you don't tell them diere's no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river." -Nikita S. Khrushchev (as remembered by Richard Nixon) Myths have played a role in American politics from the beginning. Holding Americans together as a people in the early years of the republic like a kind of national glue was the myth of George Washington. In a country with weak national institutions and no traditions , the Washington myth was vital. Had he not been godlike, his fellow citizens still would have pretended that he was. Between the Revolution and the Civil War Americans went on a mythmaking binge, turning almost everybody who came to prominence into a larger-than-life mythical character: Ben Franklin, Davy Crockett, Abe Lincoln, and dozens of others. They didn't call it nation building, but that was what they were doing. Myths have been especially important to the United States because, as a nation of immigrants, it lacks a common ancestry and tribal ties. The founding fathers themselves fell for the myths, save possibly for the ornery John Adams, who denounced the merry mythmaking he encountered all around him as so much nonsense (in part because he felt that his own contributions had been underestimated ). And there is no denying that after the masses got the vote in the 1830s (when property qualifications were abolished), myths became the driving force in American politics. Where in the past politicians had debated issues in detail and often at a high level, now more and more they invoked myths. Particularly in the modern era myths have been vital because they help voters sort through the chaos of conflicting information in which they find themselves almost drowning. Any number of dates might be selected as a key turning point. But if one must choose, the most obvious year is 1840. This is the election fittingly remembered for a slogan. The winner, Whig William Henry Harrison, was the Tippecanoe referred to in the famous line, 'Tippecanoe and Tyler, * FromJustHo»StupidArt Weihung the Truth abouttheAmerican Voter (Basic Books,June 2008). Copyright O Rick Shenkman. Reprinted with the permission of Basic Books. too." Though it wasn't the first campaign to feature a slogan, the Tippecanoe line was the first campaign slogan anybody still recalls. No one today remembers "Huzzah for Gen. Jackson! Down with die Yankees," or "Marty Van Ruin," a deft jab at Harrison 's opponent, Martin Van Buren, on whose watch the economy had slipped into a devastating depression. But after Tippecanoe won the execuAn 1840 Whig campaign print, showing William Henry Harrison greeting a wounded veteran before a log cabin by a river. The cabin flies an American flag with the words 'Harrison & Tyler" and with a liberty cap on its staff. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (reproduction number, LC-USZ62-5550). tive mansion with the help of a dazzling slogan, every president of the United States came into office in part on the back of a simplistic phrase designed to generate an emotional charge from the masses. There wasn't much more to Harrison's election than his various slogans. He had no other qualification for office other than diat he was once a general . He had not written any books. He had never given a memorable speech. He had no position on die major issues of the day. The great fear of his handlers was that he might actually say something if given the chance to speak at a public gathering. Party bosses arranged that should Harrison be elected, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay would actually run the government, Clay from his position in the Senate and Webster from his in the cabinet. When the party convened to select Harrison, the delegates even chose to forego the writing of a party platform. His chief claim, that he was a general , was overrated. He hadn't distinguished himself in battle beyond winning a much-disputed victory over Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe nearly thirty years earlier, where he lost about a...


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