Myths, Leaders, and Democracy

by Quinn O'Neill

Archetypes are universally recognized symbols or patterns of behavior that tend to recur in myths and stories across different cultures. The femme fatale, the hero, and the wise old man are common examples. The leader archetype is also popular. Like Moses or Gandhi, such figures tend to be wise and visionary and able to single-handedly inspire the masses to follow them toward some noble goal.

In reality, leadership often doesn't happen like this. Changing people's behavior and opinions to bring them in line with a particular goal is often best accomplished in subtle and even subliminal ways. Propaganda and media influences, for example, tend to shape opinion more reliably than a single charismatic visionary. A visible leader may not even be necessary to get the job done.

Archetypes may not always reflect reality, but they resonate with us on the level of our own identities. Our desire to see ourselves as heroes or participants in a noble movement can be useful to campaign designers. Portraying soldiers as heroes is a powerful way to encourage people to join a war effort, even when the war is illegal and immoral. Casting a person as a noble and visionary leader may inspire us to follow without even knowing where we’re heading. This brilliant propaganda from the Obama campaign provides a great example:

We see people proudly and enthusiastically joining crowds of Obama followers, which based on the accompanying song lyrics, we presume to be heading “forward”. Forward sounds progressive, like the sort of movement we’d all want to join, but the video doesn’t say where Obama is actually taking us. I would assume that forward means an extension of what’s happened in the last four years – more warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, drone killings, a further rise in income inequality, and a worsening of the fortunes of black people. I’d guess that his supporters are interpreting “forward” to mean something else.

Obama is charismatic, intelligent, and well-spoken but he’s not the enchanting archetypal leader he may appear to be. Someone else is writing the speeches and ads that inspire his followers and his billion dollar campaign has undoubtedly done a lot for a his public image. If he’d run as a 3rd party candidate in his first election, it's highly unlikely that he'd have made it to the debates, let alone into the hearts of voters.

A sigh of relief may be appropriate in the wake of the recent election, which could have turned out worse, but the exuberant love-fest that was triggered by Obama’s re-election has been disconcerting. Many have been swept away by his campaign rhetoric and propaganda. “We love you!” people shouted at his speeches and rallies. Supporters were emotional and teary-eyed, like fanatical preteens at a Justin Bieber concert. But, if not for media spin and propaganda, Obama’s foreign policies might have gotten blood spatter on their rose-colored glasses.

Obama's drone attacks terrorize and kill innocents and should inspire outrage. Imagine if a couple of high ranking al Qaeda members were to hole themselves up in an American school and Obama were to respond by having the school bombed, killing a dozen American children. Would his progressive stance on gay marriage and abortion rights make it up to the loved ones of the dead? Or would we call it murder and find it completely unacceptable? The reality is that Obama hasn’t just gotten away with murder, he’s made it cool, even joking about using predator drones to keep the Jonas brothers away from his daughters.

The recent election results are sobering. A remarkably large portion of the population actually voted for Romney, despite his comments about the 47%, his flip-flopping on issues, and his having strapped his dog to the roof of his car for a 12-hour road trip. The Republicans even had some members claiming that rape-induced pregnancies are gifts from God. Meanwhile, many people on the left adoringly embraced a plutocratic, wiretapping president with a kill list, because he’s “progressive”.

Both the Romney supporters and the “Yay Obama, we love you!” crowd reflect a dangerous failure of American democracy. Despite its reputation, democracy isn’t such a good idea when the electorate is largely ignorant or misinformed, and this appears to be the case in the US in 2012.

Some of my own friends saw Obama’s re-election as a triumph of democracy, but the election wasn’t democratic. The exorbitant and unconstrained cost of waging a competitive presidential campaign assures that the common voter will never have a dog in the race, let alone a leader who’ll serve their interests. At the same time, the Commission on Presidential debates, a private corporation comprised of republicans and democrats, controls the debates to the exclusion of third party candidates. Essentially, this election offered American voters a choice between two drone-happy plutocratic parties who colluded to muzzle the competition.

The media is the engine behind modern leadership and it’s being used to turn democracy on its head. In a real democracy, the people participate in important decision making that will affect them. In America, those in power decide on a plan of action and then spend millions to shape the opinions of the people accordingly.

A CIA document leaked in 2010 made it crystal clear that this is how Western leaders operate. The aim was to stimulate waning support for the war in Afghanistan in various NATO countries. The document describes how French and German leaders were able to ignore opposition from the people they were supposed to be representing:

“The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments, according to INR polling in fall 2009.”

The report also discusses ways to tie the war effort to the people’s priorities in order to drum up support. Rather than act in accordance with the people’s wishes, Western leaders endeavored to change public opinion.

This is exactly what happened with proposition 37 too. Polls had revealed that more than 90% of Americans favored the labeling of GMOs, and yet the proposition was voted down in California after big corporations poured huge sums of money into campaigns to get their way.

The failure of democracy in America is tied to the success of capitalism. Inequalities in income and wealth translate to inequalities in political influence and capacity to manipulate public opinion. The concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy will naturally serve their interests, further widening the income gap and expanding the power and infuence of those at the top. Ultimately, the wealthy are able to corrupt the entire system in their favor. As former Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis put it, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”

At the heart of America’s dysfunctional political system lies a media engine that's used by those in power to systematically misinform the electorate for political and financial gain. The situation is getting worse. In the past four years, Obama has lowered the standard of journalism, reduced transparency, cracked down on whistleblowers, and allowed “news” broadcasters to continue lying to people about important issues like climate change. Citizens need to be well-informed in order for democracy to work. We need to demand access to quality education, high standards of journalistic integrity, and government transparency. And we need to reject mythical notions of leadership that would have us follow charismatic figures whose images have been shaped by billion dollar campaigns. If we want a real democracy, we can’t content ourselves to be voters and followers, we need to be leaders. It's time for activism.