Mythic Thoughts: Wednesdayʻs Presidential Debate

Itʻs a performance of leadership, not an indicator of effective leadership.

Romney seemed overexcited, jumping into the debate in a way some pundits called manly and others called rabid. (Itʻs always somewhere in-between, isnʻt it?). Obama seemed over-patient, looking down as if he were tired or as some pundits called it, passive. The moderator could barely get them to answer the questions, much less respect the debate format. Audience members who want an agressive president will like Romneyʻs performance, and Obamaʻs more measured performance will appeal more to people who yearn for a rational voice in government. We judge more from the performance than the words, unfortunately.

Leadership as a debate performance is really about us getting comfortable handing over our voice, our vote to a person who will be performing leadership nationally and internationally. Not listening to the words, weʻll betray our biases at the ballot box, pulling the lever for whatever kind of man we feel can speak for us.

But if we listen to the core stories the candidates were telling…

we can go deeper, see more about whatʻs really dividing this country and framing this election. Letʻs talk about it in terms of archetypal stories — those primal, universal myths that weʻre all trying to live up to or survive. Joseph Campbell made them popular by helping us see our lives as a heroʻs journey. I like to use Carol Pearsonʻs  framework, twelve archetypes we cycle through as we become individuals and grow into our highest selves.

Romney vs. Obama: Two Kinds of Warriors

Of the twelve archetypes Pearson explores in her work, I think five were in powerful play last night. Both men used the rhetoric of  battle, wanting to be seen as warriors for the middle class, both fighting for dominance in the election. But their performances diverged as profoundly as their politics once they got rolling.

Romney performed as a Creator/Destroyer — an entrepreneurial innovator who promises to toss out whatʻs not working (the Destroyer role) and bring in new programs to create jobs and wealth (the Creator role). He seems to want us to see him as the only one with the experience to fix the problem by cleaning up the mess and transforming the overbearing/overburdened government into a facilitator for innovation in the states.

Obama performed as a Caregiver/Sage — an educated helper who promises to make changes that will empower ordinary people, primarily but not exclusively the struggling middle class. He cited a lot of statistics, very rationally and clearly (the Sage role) and emphasized over and over again that he wanted to help the people regain their economic footing by building the economy and developing a meaningful safety net (the Caregiver role). He seems to want us to see him as the only one who cares enough and knows enough to bring people together to find inclusive solutions through effective government.

Night and Day

After the debate, when my friends and I sat around the table bristling and trying to figure out who “won,”  I couldnʻt help but think this debate was less a contest that could result in a victory, and more a visible clash of two opposing myths dividing our nation. The candidates represent two very different kinds of warrior, one fierce and the other gentle.

Romneyʻs Creator/Destroyer — omniscient, decisive, entrepreneurial — is a warrior whose cause is the individual, the unique, the survival of the fittest in that American myth of a classless society. He fights for the right to be free of constraints, to hold on to what we earn, to rise as high as we can rise, no matter where we begin our journey. Heʻs King Arthur, and he seems to be inviting us to his round table.

Obamaʻs Caregiver/Sage — wise, collaborative, nurturing — is a warrior for the many, the disadvantaged, the survival of communities in that American myth of all for one, one for all. He fights for the common man, the people who earnestly want to succeed but canʻt rise above a system that keeps them down. Heʻs Gandalf, and he seems to be making sure we all survive our quest by working together.

Whatever else we learned about these two leaders from the substance of their answers, we certainly saw the myths they (and their parties) activate in the public sphere. Because theyʻre mythic roles, we donʻt really see Obama and Romney here — we see the myth. And because theyʻre mythic roles, we project onto them all of our hopes and fears about that particular national story.

Itʻs a strange moment in American politics and the development of our national identity. And it was laid out in the debate like a fork in a road. Which performance of leadership myth is better or worse? Neither, really. Theyʻre primal stories, not measurements of effective leadership. As the polls start coming out, theyʻll be responding as much to the archetypes at play as the candidates.

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