Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

The Biggest Myths of the 2012 Election

As part of the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October, the History News Network interviewed participants on presidential history. Following the conference, Dick Walsh, editor of the History News Network, conducted a post-election analysis interview with Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado. The full video chat is available on the Miller Center’s website (click here to watch), but in this post, we survey key insights on the election offered by Prof. Chernus.

In the video chat, Chernus discussed the key myths told during the campaign. To clarify, what Chernus means when he says myths are “the stories that are told to create a sense of identity to make sense out of the American experience. They are a mixture of fiction and truth.” In 2012, the dominant myth that resonated was a story that hasn’t been seen on the national scene in quite awhile – the story of the gap between the super rich and the rest of us. The story first began to surface with the Occupy Movement in 2011. It’s been a long time since wealth and income inequality has been a story in the mass media. Obama began to speak about the difficulties of the middle class and the privileges of the rich about a year before the election. It is, of course, a story with deep historical roots, and has been used in the past by Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as earlier progressive and populist movements. According to Chernus, the Obama campaign made very effective use of this myth to create a story about Romney as a vulture venture capitalist. Of course in politics you want to define your opponent before your opponent has a chance to define you. Obama defined himself as a champion of the middle class fighting against a predatory capitalist who would do to the whole nation what he had done to the workers of the companies bought out by Bain Capital.

The Romney campaign made some effort to rebut this myth, but for the most part their strategy was not to engage. When you rebut, you go on the defensive and reinforce what your opponent says about you. Instead, the Romney campaign’s effort was to define Obama as incompetent, and someone who had destroyed the economy and who didn’t know how to get us out of the recession. The Romney team went back to Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  That is also a traditional story in American politics. In the spring and summer, most pundits thought it would be the story of the election. The intervening months since then have shown that was too simplistic an analysis. The idea that political fortunes are determined by the economy is a long-standing story, but Chernus hopes it will be harder to make that case in the future because it is too simple – there are too many other variables interacting in elections.