Ever since I became addicted to the West Wing sixteen years ago, I have been fascinated by American politics.
There is a level of reverence and awe about American Presidents that simply doesn’t exist in Australia.
While almost everyone in the world knows that George Washington was the first President of the United States, probably only 10% of Australians would have a clue who our first Prime Minister was.
As I watched Barak Obama give quite a moving speech endorsing Hillary Clinton, it became clear to me that one of the primary benefits of being an American national leader is the clearly defined national “myth” or story. Theodore White wrote:
A myth is the way of putting together the raw and contradictory evidence of life. It lets people make patterns of meaning in their lives in the context of a larger pattern.
Obama repeatedly drew on the American myth, giving weight to the story he was telling about Clinton.
Myth is a reflection of the spiritual nature of human beings. There are phrases stories and songs that somehow are able to capture our hearts because of the place we were born, and the best communicators understand this.
The words in the American declaration of independence “All men are created equal” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” echo through history and have been re-enforced at key moments in the nations history (think Gettysburg Address, I have a dream speech etc) in a way that has drawn new levels of committment and drawn the nation together. The most effective Presidents have been those who have been able to tap into these impulses.
Every national myth also has a dark side, and in America, there is a deep distrust of government that was established at the same time that the transcendent values were forged. The very same declaration of independence that talks about life and liberty also declares:
“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”
Throughout America’s history, political leaders have also tapped into this more negative side of the national psyche. A case could be put that this is exactly what Trump is doing.
It is actually this negative part of the American founding principles that best explains the nations love affair with guns. One of the things that I didn’t fully understand until I talked to a number of American friends, is that the deep commitment to guns stems from the belief that it is necessary to always have the capacity to overthrow the government if necessary. Although this seems crazy to an Australian, it is true.
So within the American psyche is a double edged sword: a veneration of their Presidents and a deep fear of government. It is this inbuilt tension, between the grand vision of “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” and deep mistrust of government, which has produced America.
Culture really matters. In every culture there are points of transcendence where we see the best of what it means to be created in the image of God. In every culture there are points of darkness where we see the worst of human brokenness.
The service that America does for other nations is that they have taken the time to write down value statements in a way that makes a national myth obvious. Every other country also has a myth, but if there are founding documents, they very rarely capture the true “mythical story” that shapes the nation.
This is particularly obvious in Australia, where the song that captures our heart is not our national anthem but a story about a swagman that commits Suicide (Waltzing Matilida), and the military hero we choose (Simpson) is a guy that never fired a shot in a battle we lost (Gallipoli). These things are not the myth but are clues to what the myth is.
Australian leaders don’t have the same helpful documents that map the positive and negative sides of the myth, they have to feel their way and be students of history. Unfortunately most don’t, so when a speech “works”, it is almost a surprise. Continue reading