The essay I’m writing for the ISSEI conference picks up where Edward Pessen left off in his book The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents. Pessen covers Washington through Reagan. I’m picking up with Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.
The focus of my essay is how this myth operates in autobiography after the political usefulness of claiming a humble origin no longer matters. (George H. W. Bush is a fascinating anomaly. He just tossed aside the idea of writing an autobiography as unnecessary and instead published a compilation of letters and other writings. No claims of humble origin for this guy.)
What I wanted to share with you today is a quote by Pessen that will be of particular interest to Rhetorica readers. Pessen says that, among other things, his research into the social backgrounds of the presidents
suggests that the [news] media, which play so great a role in shaping the public’s consciousness, are perfectly willing to propagate myths likely to have a stabilizing effect on our political life, no matter how slight the factual basis of these myths.
[Ed. Note: Pessen confines his remarks to political "consciousness," which is not indicated by this truncated quote. With that qualification in mind, I agree with his statement. I have claimed before -- and I'm sticking by it as unremarkable -- that most Americans experience presidential politics through the news media.]
Recall from my work on the primary instability paradox (here and here) that a stable political system is an undemocratic political system, i.e. a stable system gives the illusion of choice and the illusion of unpredictability. When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.
Call it mythology. Call it master narrative. Call it bad journalism.