The US needs to adopt a new mythos that’s not at war with facts

From guns to health care, conservatives push a mythically-driven politics that’s actively hostile to facts.

NRA's president Wayne LaPierre is confined to disregarding facts, claims Paul Rosenberg [AP]

Antoinette Tuff is the NRA’s worst nightmare.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre infamously said, “The only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.” But when Tuff talked Michael Brandon Hill into giving up his gun and surrendering to police on August 21, she showed the whole world just how wrong LaPierre was.  A good woman with no gun did the job perfectly, thank you very much. 

Where LaPierre saw the answer in a hail of bullets, Tuff saw it in treating the shooter like a child-like her own child, in fact. “It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she said. “I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? We all go through something in life…you going to be OK.”

It’s not that Tuff disproved LaPierre. It was something much more basic than that. Disproving LaPierre’s statement would imply it was a factual claim, when actually it was not. It was, instead, a form of mythic utterance, a ritual incantation, a drawing down of higher powers, into the holy vessel of the gun.  In the introduction to The Battle For God, Karen Armstrong distinguishes between two radically different forms of knowledge: logos, which has to do with how things work in the world, and mythos, which has to do with ultimate meanings. Regarding mythos, she explained:

Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.

What’s more, she explained:

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

But no one should think that mythos belongs only to religion. It belongs anywhere where questions of meaning and purpose arise – which is to say, in virtually every human realm. Mythos in this sense is precisely what the NRA traffics in –  not just the NRA, but the entire range of movement conservatism.  And they all replicate the modernist mistake of fundamentalist religion – which is a disaster for them in terms of producing workable policies. But it’s their salvation in terms of selling themselves and their reassuring vision. While liberals and moderates focus their attention on facts, conservative activists like LaPierre simply ignore whatever doesn’t fit their view of the world, and pound repeatedly on mythic, meaning-making statements, regardless of whether they have any foundations in fact. 

Conservative mythos

There is one more thing that conservatives have going for them:  Each policy failure that they produce creates a more confusing and chaotic world, which they can then blame on failing to be truly conservative enough.  Thus, while policy success builds on policy success in a logos-based approach to public policy, policy failure can be just as self-reinforcing in a mythos-based approach. 

Obama calls for changes in gun laws

All this explains why it’s no surprise that, as a statement of fact, LaPierre’s claim was ludicrous on its face, even as it was deeply satisfying for the gun-dependent. Everyone knows, for example, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; it’s obviously far better to prevent bad men from getting guns in the first place.  There’s plenty of data to back this up. But it’s much harder to see what happens when nothing happens – that is when gun safety laws work. 

But vivid public drama has the power to speak to us, not just factually, but mythically as well. That is the sense in which Tuff’s remarkable presence; level-headedness and heroism definitively refuted LaPierre’s lunacy – but only if the memory of what she did is kept alive.

Then, on September 16, LaPierre’s closely-related arm-the-teachers proposal suffered an additional blow when the Navy Yard shooter killed an armed security guard and continued his rampage. Once again, it was shown that guns are not magical talismans that protect the virtuous – contradicting a key article of faith of the mythic worldview that LaPierre is peddling.  The mythic impact was nowhere near as strong in the Navy Yard shooting, of course.  It was not the central self-evident fact of the case. Yet, it was inescapably there.

In between Antoinette Tuff’s heroism and the Navy Yard massacre, the NRA appeared to win a big victory, as two Colorado state senators it targeted for recall were defeated in low-turnout special elections. But that’s not the message that Salon columnist David Sirota took away – quite aside from the fact that the NRA failed to even get enough signatures to challenge two other senators it originally intended to challenge.

“Inevitably, the gun lobby will now claim the Colorado elections prove that politicians should back off even minimal gun regulations,” Sirota observed. “But the elections say the opposite – they say that if the gun lobby is going to continue turning a policy debate into a cultural one, then an equally powerful cultural argument needs to be made in response.”

The truth of what Sirota is saying should be self-evident. But he’s only scratching the surface here. He’s talking about cultural counter-arguments, which is a good start.  But he’s not talking about a counter-mythos, or about the need for that counter-mythos across all issue-areas – although, as a former blog-mate of David’s, I have no doubt this is something he would support. 

He knows as well as I do that it’s not just on guns that – as he says earlier in his piece – most see the political discourse as being “about policies that attempt to strike a balance”, while a fierce minority’s “visceral reaction… suggest[s] they see the same discourse as less about policy than about culture” (or as less about logos than mythos).  The same is broadly true across the board. On issue after issue, progressives and conservatives tend toward contrasting positions, but with considerable overlap and room for rational, pragmatic compromises, which progressive politicians and political activists are generally willing to work towards.  But in response – on issue after issue – movement conservatives reject such compromises out of hand – even when a majority of conservative voters support the compromise positions, even when movement conservatives themselves previously advocated such positions. 

The mythos behind defunding ‘Obamacare’

There is no better example of this than the current fanatical attempts to defund Obamacare with a threatened government shutdown. The conservative narrative portrays Obamacare as “socialism”, as a law that will literally destroy America as we know it, much as Ronald Reagan once warned that Medicare would do. But the blueprint for Obamacare comes from the Heritage Foundation’s alternative to Clinton’s health-care reform agenda in the 1990s, which was implemented on a statewide level by Mitt Romney in the 2000s. It is conservative-born and Republican-bred. It only became the source of all evil once a Democratic President signed onto it. 

However, the most important policy dimension in American politics over time has been has been economic, and here there is overwhelming evidence of a profound disconnect between the policy attitudes of conservative voters and the rigid ideology of movement conservatives – a subject I’ve written about it for years here and elsewhere. In one column, “A Grand Bargain Is a Grand Betrayal“, from November 2012, I wrote:

For example, in 2010, if we combine six questions – adding education, mass transit, highways and bridges, and urban problems to Social Security and health care – then the percentage of conservative Republicans saying we spend too much on all of them drops to a minuscule 0.4 percent, while two-thirds (66.5 percent) say we are spending too little on at least one of them. They may philosophically subscribe to the idea of shrinking government, but pragmatically they know what works and they want more of it, not less.

The secret to conservative political success is that voters are not “rational actors” as many economists would have us believe.  They respond situationally, and are particularly sensitive to manipulations of the American mythos, which has been a full-time job for movement conservatives for the past four or five decades. In that same column I referred to the 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, which first established the sharp disconnect just mentioned between what they called “operational” liberalism and ideological conservatism – defined by agreement with five statements, such as “The Federal Government is interfering too much in state and local matters,” and “We should rely more in individual initiative and ability and not so much on governmental welfare programs.” In the final section of the final chapter of the book, titled, “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology”, they wrote:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasised in this study…. There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

Tea Party Republicans, in the grip of their mythos, are thoroughly convinced that the unemployed are just lazy.

Needless to say, this restatement has not happened.  Quite the opposite: conservative organizational power has been vastly intensified since then, with enormous financial resources poured into political messaging, both during and between campaigns, which has only strengthened the hold of those ideological views, even as they’ve failed repeatedly.  There has been strikingly little impact on the underlying attitudes I refer to above – note that I cited figures from 2010 in my earlier column – but the power of messaging that matters in the voting booth, and in shaping a political mythos more generally, has been repeatedly intensified, which is a large part of why outright lies about “gun grabbers” helped carry the day in defeating those two moderate gun safety law reformers in Colorado. 

It’s also poised to push America off an economic cliff – and perhaps the whole world as well. Over the past few years, the US budget deficit has fallen faster than ever in history, but millions are still unemployed, and the 3-to-1 ratio of job-seekers to jobs is as bad as it was at the worst point following Bush’s first recession. Yet, the Tea Party Republicans, in the grip of their mythos, are thoroughly convinced that the unemployed are just lazy, and the deficit is larger than ever – so large, that it’s worth potentially wrecking the economy in order to slay it – even though destroying the economy will only make the deficit come roaring back once again. 

This is what the next few weeks and months of wrangling over the budget and the debt ceiling ultimately come down to: a battle between mythos and logos. It’s the same battle that runs through the heart of American politics, reshaping every issue it touches. And yet, that battle will never turn out well, until it is transformed into a very different battle: a battle between a mythos that’s compatible with logos – one that says, We all go through something in life…You going to be OK.” – and one that is not.