The idea for this road-side study was conceived out of a conversation I shared with colleagues from my public policy days. We've been in and out of touch over the course of twenty years, watching and discussing the rollercoaster ride of democratic governance in twenty-first century America unfold.
As the last election cycle unfolded, the role of symbolism appeared to be playing a unique role – and not always a healthy role. The most overt signals that I became aware of coincided with the rise of the term, "dog whistle" in relationship to constituent mobilization. As I began to listen more closely to themes and codes in the election, and to wonder at the visual memes making there way across my feeds, from unusual "dank" sources.
As we moved from the primary process to the general election, I became struck at how unified and symbolically charged the Republican campaign appeared to be, while the Democratic campaign sustained diverse and more symbolically amorphous crowds.
Things really seemed to explode just before and the after the inauguration of President Trump – from "pussy hats" to Confederate flags, Civil War monuments and kneeling at football games, America appeared to be undergoing a revolutionary contest for symbolic meaning.
And it all seems very divisive.
After the tragic and unacceptable death of an American protestor in Charlottesville, VA I began to wonder, is there any symbolic common ground? Are there any stories, images or symbols that we hold to dearly as a people? What ignites our common democratic aspiration?
"America," I wrote in a research proposal, "enjoys among the strongest and most resilient democratic institutions in the world while public trust in our government rests at historic lows."
How is it that overt efforts to bolster public participation and civic engagement over the last forty years track with increased partisan entrenchment, divergent bias in media coverage of current affairs, and online opinion mobilization?
These dynamics – and certainly others – produced one of the most bitterly partisan and divisive electoral contests in modern history.
My proposal is that missing from the discussion about how to address the widening “crisis of democracy” in America is an inquiry into the role of artists and the cultural products that animate our communities and our collective conscience. Of the efforts that do exist, most have a “social change” agenda – a focus on asserting or expanding the important benefits of democracy, among them equity, inclusion, justice, and diversity.
Little attention or resources are paid to the cultural inspiration of democracy today, the symbolic and mythological wells from which a shared democratic aspiration might arise.
Symbols, Nietzsche wrote, encapsulate “the beautiful possibilities of life.” As symbol creators, manipulators and propagators, artists and the cultural institutions that support artistic activity and encounters contribute in unique and substantive ways to the landscape of democratic aspiration that fuels a body politic. If they don’t establish a paradigm, symbols and the archetypes and myths that infuse them with meaning at least present us with the aspirational horizon which is a condition for social progress.
Does a unified or unifying national or democratic mythology – and its accompanying archetypes and symbols – exist in America today? The myths, archetypes and symbols of America’s democratic culture are traditionally propagated through high and popular culture, through architecture and our media, all more or less sloppily bound together by the early American motto, E pluribus unum.
I grateful to the Democracy Fund for accepting my proposal to dig into this question, of whether there exists an unconscious social fabric we are weaving through the arts today, through our contemporary symbolic domain? In other words, is there a national aspiration or purpose that gives form to our collective experience and binds us into this shared framework for action we call American democracy? If so what is it, and how is this common aspiration represented, if at all, through the symbols and mythologies that animate our democratic imaginations?
I hope you'll join me helping to bring some clarity to this question. If you'd like to read the full proposal narrative its available online here.