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Zombie History: Reagan Myths Rise Again!

February 9, 2011

We’ve called Pres. Ronald Reagan a zombie politician before; we’ll probably do it again, but when better than in the flickering afterglow of his Sunday centennial 5-story- not-entirely-edible-birthday-cake bash, complete with jelly beans, Palin patter, and a float. That’s $5 million of evidence that Reagan’s presence, if not his reanimated corpse, lingers on.

The Zombie Survival Guide is clearly the place to turn for a comprehensive break down of zombie physiology and pathology, but I suppose their most salient characteristic is [spoiler alert] zombies are a myth. But then, so is Reagan. You can’t type half his name into Google without getting myth-based commentary.

And it’s coming from all sides!

What? Did you assume the label “myths about Reagan” was a liberal phrase? You’d be right. Plenty of liberal-leaning commentators slap myth, meaning distortion or lies, on parts of Reagan’s story. For example, commentators claim the Right disseminates myths like:

  • Reagan shrunk the national budget. MYTH!
  • Reagan didn’t negotiated with enemies. MYTH! MYTH!
  • Reagan was harsh on illegal immigration. MYTH!
  • Reagan was loved from beginning to end  of his term. MYTH!
  • Reagan embodied conservative ideals. MYTH! MYTH! MYTH!

Of course, if you just thought this solely Democratic strategy, then you’d be wrong. The Republicans also have their “myths about Reagan.”  Democratically-started myths, that is. The Republicans claim the Left is forgetting, mistaking, or flat-out smearing the Great Communicator’s legacy. Specifically, they assert the Left perpetuates the myths of:

  • Reagan as “an ‘amiable dunce.’” MYTH! MYTH!
  • Reagan as only a “campaign Christian.” MYTH!
  • Reagan’s tax cuts as only benefited the rich. MYTH!
  • Reagan as knowing “Star Wars” wouldn’t work &
  • Gorbachev as ending the Cold War, not Reagan. MYTH!

Democrats often fail to create compelling myths, political scholars like George Lakoff sometimes claim, and so they lose independent hearts and votes to Republicans. But when it comes to Reagan, it seems the Dems worked out the myth-line first. The GOP was rhetorically savvy enough not to engage those myths with reasoned argument. Instead, conservatives created their own myths about Reagan, myths that simultaneously shored up Reagan’s greatness for their partisans and tacitly accused the Dems as sour-grape liars without a recent hero to call their own. In other words, thanks to this flip, the Right can say: The myth isn’t about Reagan and the budget; the real myth is about Reagan and the Cold War! or, Reagan and Christianity! or, Reagan and Tax Cuts!

But that’s what political parties do, no? Shout back and forth. What makes this more than noise? I would argue, given the Democrats’ success in the myth frame, and the Republicans’ mirror-version response, we can observe something notable: a rhetorical Cold War. Both sides have built up armories of myth, and rhetorical strategy means the parties can neither go forward nor stand down without world destruction.

Overstating? I don’t think so. Media scholar Joanne Morreale writes when you’re holding the myth, it doesn’t seem like a myth. It feels like a deeply ingrained part of your worldview. Your opposition’s natural inclination might be to respond with reasoned argument. But, to you, that myth isn’t going to be open for debate. Because it won’t be a myth. It will be reality. And you don’t debate reality; it’s just, you know, real. If you actually recognize a myth on your own side, see what seemed real as instead constructed story, your own worldview is shaken and changed. Maybe for good, maybe for ill, but to recognize a myth means some part of your previous understanding of life will be destroyed.

Most of the time, we’re against world-destruction, even of our own personal ones. So, rhetorical stalemate. The Left can’t back off the myths they’ve identified; neither can the Right, for opposite reasons than usually; backing off would mean that the opposite side actually had their hands on some truth. And that, too, would entail the party destroying part of its view of American history and correct policy. And what kind of politician is willing to shake up the party’s world order?

Earning the support of independent voters might determine victory in a specific battle, but these sides, they are dug in but good, and there’s no peace talks on the horizon.  What you see over there, with all the lights—that’s campaign season. But when you’re fighting off the mindless, devouring hordes (you know who they are) sometimes a stalemate is a win. You keep your people and your myths together, you hunker down, and you wait out the storm. Happy days will come again. It’s morning in America. And it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

If you want to know more:

  • Myth, as evoked here, in other places might be called “historical narratives” (TST explains the concept here; Krugman invokes it below). Furthermore, while Lakoff writes more about framing than myth-making, I would argue both theoretical concepts are about filtering discourse through carefully shaped perspectives that are chosen in order to highlight some points and obscure others. A complement to Morreale is Patricia Roberts-Miller’s rhetorical conceptualizing in/out-group dynamics and stance-taking in her Spring 2009 RSQ article “Dissent As ‘Aid and Comfort to the Enemy’: The Rhetorical Power of Naïve Realism and Ingroup Identity.” She writes that the kind stance-taking which does little to persuade anyone not already on your side, is nevertheless rhetorical; it is “a species of epideictic: praise or blame that confirms community values and, not coincidentally, persuades the audience of the merits of the speaker.” Thus another way to consider the repeated rhetorical move of publishing a “Myths about Reagan” argument is as a means not to clarify Reagan’s legacy but rather codify one’s own position as a party-faithful (whichever party that might be).
  • Above, I am referencing Morreale’s A New Beginning:  a Textual Frame Analysis of the Political Campaign Film.
  • Linked List Mania! Pre-2010 examples of Reagan Myth arguments:
    • 1983: Paul D. Erickson (rhetorician), Reagan Speaks:  The Making of an American Myth.
    • 2004: David Greenberg (historian and political scientist), “The Man, The Myths.”
    • 2007: Cenk Uygur (Politico.com), “The Myth of Ronald Reagan’s Ghost Lives.”
    • 2007: James Man (NYT OpEd), “Tear Down That Myth.”
    • 2007: Kyle Longley (historian), “Contemporary Politics and the Myths of Reagan.”
    • 2008: Paul Krugman (liberal columnist), “Debunking the Reagan Myth.”
    • 2008: Daniel Larison (grad student, conservative blogger), “The Power of Myth.”
  • Also, currently: Will Bunch, author of the 2009 Tear Down This Myth:  How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future and producers of recent HBO release Reagan are covered in media for their work de-mythifying the conservative hero version of the president.
  • For a zippy review (if you skip the chapter details) of Reagan Speaks, see the RSQ 17.2 (Summer 1987) review by James R. Bennett. Available through Jstor.
  • Watch the much-venerated (around here) news show that scooped us on this story.
  • Always knew Reagan was more mountain than man? Get the photo-shopped version.
  • My thanks to Doug Cloud for calling attention to the Roberts-Miller article, and to Matt Zebrowski for suggesting there can be significance beyond the fact I find some language cool.
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