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The hero with a thousand races

Over the course of the campaign cycle so far, the one thing that has struck me most has been the resemblance between the political narrative and the narrative of the hero as sketched out in the writings of mythographer Joseph Campbell.

According to Campbell, the basic arc of the hero narrative that persists from culture to culture is as follows. The hero goes out from his community to bring it some sort of boon, some benefit that it's lacking at present and that will transform the conditions of life in the community for the better. He meets with a wise old man who assists him with his quest. His quest brings him into contact with a father -- either his own or some sort of universal spiritual figure -- and he retrieves the boon. He brings the boon to his community and is hailed as a conquering hero. Then he rules benevolently and perpetually -- unless he loses sight of the true origins of his power and turns into a tyrant. Campbell refers to this figure as the "Tyrant Holdfast," the "hoarder of the general benefit." In such a case, a new hero figure must arise to unseat him and reenergize the community.

This is exactly what happens every election season, except that instead of dragon-headed emperors and Titan lawgivers like the ones Campbell portrays, we have human beings such as Barack Obama, Mike Castle, and Adrian Fenty. There are no swords or dragons -- there's the occasional demon sheep or melting witch, but they mostly stay under wraps.

Don't believe me? The 2008 campaign was a classic case of the hero narrative. Barack Obama was raised in Hawaii by his mother and grandparents. He left his community to attend college and law school, become a professor and community-organize. It's hard to pinpoint one specific wise old man that Obama consulted -- no one likes Bill Ayers these days, and Rahm doesn't make the age cutoff -- but nonetheless President Obama began his hero's journey. He departed to seek knowledge of the father -- a quest he documented in his autobiography, aptly titled Dreams From My Father. Then he returned, bearing new insight and a boon -- hope or change or something more specific, depending upon whom you listen to -- and was hailed in a historic election as a kind of conquering hero. He was going to bring change! He was going to unseat the previous Tyrant Holdfast -- who'd gone through the same cycle in his turn, getting aid in his quest from venerable older men such as Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and seeking the (White) House of the Father.

But now it's the midterms. And while these seem to be a referendum on all kinds of things -- thumbs up or thumbs down on nineties-era masturbation? -- they're also an effort by challengers to redefine incumbents, any incumbents, as the Tyrants Holdfast and erect a new hero narrative of their own. Challengers triumphantly overrun the Castles of the establishment with pennants aloft, bearing outsider champions such as Christine O'Donnell to new heights.

Look what happened in D.C. with Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray. Fenty came in and brought all kinds of boons -- education reform! Michelle Rhee! Bike lanes? -- but the election turned quickly ad hominem. All the attack ads and criticisms leveled against Fenty used classic vocabulary of the hero-turned tyrant -- "arrogant," "overbearing," neglecting the friends who assisted his rise to prominence. These are more than just personality quibbles. I know plenty of arrogant, overbearing people who have neglected the friends who helped them rise to prominence, and they do just fine at the polls. What was so devastating to Fenty was the presentation of a narrative that turns him from rising star of the Democratic party and dragon-slaying hero to callous tyrant heedless of the source of his power.

Vincent Gray deserves credit for shaping this narrative, but he hasn't done as much to define the boon he'll be bringing. So far, it sounds like something along the lines of, uh, listening and giving people "love plants." Whatever it is, it's certainly going to be different.

Especially after Fenty's defeat, I think the "heroic cycle" may prove pernicious when it comes to President Obama. When the boon you've made such a big case for is "change," it's difficult to explain why you should be allowed to stay in place. "I thought you were in favor of change!" the electorate will shout, come 2012. "That's why we're voting for former gov. Palin! She's not even on the ballot!"

If these midterms and the hero narrative have any lesson, it's that incumbents need to keep two things in mind: identify a clear boon that you have brought your people, and keep strong ties to the origins of your power.

Just look at Charlie Rangel. He's had a rough year, what with all the allegations of corruption. But he kept people's eyes on the boons, and he retained his base of support, leading him to prevail in the face of divided opposition.

That's what Obama will need to do two years from now and what other incumbents will have to focus on before November. "Change" doesn't work as a boon -- once you're the one in charge, it's a distinctly unhelpful rallying cry. Jobs, so far, have proved hard to pin down. Health-care reform? Bending the curve sounds like one of those feats Hercules had to perform before he could achieve deity status. Whoever makes lists of things to do in the White House should add "Identify a boon!" somewhere near the top. Currently, Obama is trying things like coming out with children's books. Sure, that's nice in its way. But if he can't figure out a compelling boon soon, when 2012 rolls around, a new hero may very well be surging into place.

By Alexandra Petri  | September 15, 2010; 2:26 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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A very superficial commentary -- even the literary reference (Campbell) does not help the shallow insights put forth. By contrast, read any commentary by Frank Rich of the New York Times and see how a skilled thinker talks about and gets to the depth and breath of his topics. He is someone who, in a very real sense, is high culture -- and uses his extensive erudition and experience to aid his astute commentaries. If you'll pardon the metaphor, Rich is a gourmet meal; this commentary is a snack on the run.

Posted by: lrb100 | September 16, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

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