Subliminal Politics

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Dan Nimmo and James E. Combs are professors of political science at the University of Tennessee and Valparaiso University respectively. Professor Nimmo, in particular, has written previously with an eye toward various manifestations of the American political culture regarding voting behavior and political communications. Subliminal Politics is essentially a continuation of Nimmo’s chosen emphasis and, as is common with this type of inquiry, the work frequently departs from a purely political vein and delves into sociological arenas.

Political culture is an open ended field of study and different analysts will offer varying definitions. For the most part, the field attempts to consider public attitudes and beliefs as they relate to both political behavior and expectations. Nimmo and Combs have set as their target the role and nature of myth and mythmaking in American political culture, and their success in addressing this issue may depend more on how one views the nature of political culture than on the quality of the work itself. It should also be noted that Nimmo and Combs did not intend this book to be an exposé. There is no attempt to present a revisionist history of American political figures, institutions, or events. Rather, the authors attempt to analyze the role myth and mythmaking play in American political culture, both past and present.

The opening chapter of Subliminal Politics lays the foundation of the authors’ approach by carefully tracing the nature of myth itself. A variety of scholarly viewpoints are examined including those of the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and George Herbert Mead. Although the emphasis is understandably limited to myth in a political context, the authors strive to clarify the roles myth plays in relation to reality. Clearly, Nimmo and Combs believe that myth is much more than a form of fantasy largely because it interacts with human understanding; and, because the past can only be approached from the perspective of the present, myth frequently serves as a framework for rationalizing and categorizing events and personalities that may otherwise prove difficult to place within the context of current circumstances. Given the complexities of present-day life which defy thorough understanding, the reduction of the past to an assortment of comforting myths helps to create a kind of established vantage point to facilitate understanding. Disorder, whether past or present, undermines what psychologists refer to as cognitive consonance and here myth and mythmaking perform a valuable role in bringing a viable perspective to both the individual and the society as a whole.

In particular, Nimmo and Combs present political myths in four broad categories: “Master Myths,” broadly based societal assumptions; “Myths of Us and Them,” stressing group distinctions; “Heroic Myths,” personalities reduced to the status of legendary heroes and villains; and “Pseudo-Myths,” the use of mythmaking for current, and somewhat temporary, political ends. Subsequent chapters, however, do not categorically address each of these types but rather loosely use the labels.

Because myth is so commonly associated with legends of the past, Nimmo and Combs devote the second chapter exclusively to American political history up to the point of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War period. Limiting their survey to the mid-nineteenth century is in keeping with what the authors call the “Foundation Myth”; that is, Americans’ perspectives on the nation’s formative years. In sequence, Nimmo and Combs look at the American Revolution, the Critical Period (largely the Articles of Confederation era), the Constitutional Convention, the Early Republic (roughly the first half of the nineteenth century), and the Civil War. As a means of emphasizing the point that the past is viewed from the perspective of the present, these historical periods are given a brief historiographical overview which traces the manner in which mythmaking has served to describe the events. Again, it is Nimmo and Combs’s contention that mythmaking is furthered by historians’ tendencies to apply contemporary modes of understanding to personalities and activities of the past. As such, one encounters a “patriotic version” which contributes to the...

(The entire section is 1752 words.)