Political conventions are designed to entertain us while they mount a grandiose manipulation of the viewer. They are spectacles of power. And they give us insights into the American political machinery, which ranges from the hopeful, to the patriotic, to the bizarre.
And yes, I did it. I watched the broadcast portion of both major political conventions. I watched the videos, listened to the commentaries and the pundits, as well as the speeches and the occasional creepy chanting. Well, I really should say, I watched most of the broadcasts; mojitos only go so far.In a way, conventions are elaborate rituals. Their process is both intentional and highly orchestrated. They have invocations of ideals and invocations of ancestors. They raise the energy of the room and that of the delegates, slowly cresting then releasing it to imbue their nominee with the mantle of leadership and launch them into the general election bubbled, empowered, and ready. And this ritual serves as an investiture, as we might make a high priest. They are making a new avatar: a leader of the party that embodies the party. It’s all very magical, and actually very Pagan.
The conventions invoke a series of archetypes to create that investiture as they heighten the patriotism and amplify the positive energy onto the candidate. The speakers and leaders call upon our own American “mythology,” which echoes a series of Pagan deities from Roman Religion, iincluding Iustitia (justice), Libertas (liberty), Aequitas (equality), Hestia (individualism), and Mercury (commerce).
The leaders align their rhetoric to party platforms and national values. In doing so, they try to align themselves with these gods and ancestors. It is magical and ceremonial manipulation at its grandest. And it’s the most hypocritical; the politicians, who enthusiastically invoke these gods, also cling to their superficial monotheism to placate their constituencies.
Pagans and Polytheists see their energies at work in the world today. Much of our own ritual work and self-reflection involves understanding and communicating with these aspects to better relate to the world around us. It is familiar. It is an act of changing perception.
Like ritual, what conventions are designed to do is shape our beliefs. Our social world — the world of our interpersonal interactions — can only be understood through our perceptions. That is to say, our perceptions shape our social world. We take in sensory information, like speeches and imagery, then organize that material using our experiences to help us make sense of it all. It is a process that is exploited in ritual to help us understand ourselves and our world more fully.Some of our spell work employs these same processes. When we engage in guided imagery to manifest our wishes, we are lining up the future with our desires. When we cast a spell to be more open to love, for example, we remind ourselves through phrases and imagery of our desire. And in doing so, we also hone our perception to make ourselves aware of moments when love is available.
As a result, we enable ourselves to be more conscious to accepting love when it’s offered, even in unlikely ways and places. We become active managers of our perceptions. And through that, actively change our interactions with the world to get what we want.
The politicians and their endorsers are doing the same thing. Through speeches and imagery, they seek to confirm our perceptions that their nominee will make the best leader. They rely on our beliefs of what makes a great leader, managing our expectations through character witnesses, symbolism, and behaviors. They are using the ancient craft of bards and the modern tools of social psychology to build that better leader and pull our vote.
They are also taking advantage of something termed Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT: Fischbein & Lord (2003)). ILT suggests that we have preconceived ideas about the qualities that make a great leader. These qualities are built within our cultural archetypes of leaders, and they are active all the time.
Our assumptions about leadership (the “implicit” part of ILT) guide our perceptions and ultimately our responses to our leaders. Would-be leaders exploit ILT to “look the part” of leadership. Much like wearing a Triple Goddess headband, the leader adopts the symbols and colors of their party and nation to validate their leadership. But they also involve themselves with the symbols and language of leadership to manipulate our belief in them as being effective.
I often explain this theory and its application using the film Excalibur (1981). The film illustrates the Arthurian symbols of power, like Excalibur, Merlin’s staff and the knights’ armor, as demonstrations of authority. The story also explains the divine selection of Arthur to lead Britain, while also illuminating the important values of fairness, justice and duty. His mortal, spirit and fairy contemporaries attest to his prowess and preparation. All gods select him to lead. Pagan gods embrace Arthur and underscore his Celtic origins. And, as the Fisher King, he is Christianized gaining the favor of the god of Abraham and a follower of Jesus. The myth of Arthur as king becomes a metric to measure the worthiness of a leader.
The designers of conventions are keenly aware of the power of these metrics. They craft the party message with intense precision. They craft the candidate’s story to build their mythic leadership. They engage in the subtlest of mythopoeia –– the construction of myth — to build a compelling story around their candidate.
We learn of each candidate’s heroic voyage to the moment. We are given a frame-by-frame accounting of each candidate’s life that foreshadows their greatness as well as readiness to lead. This includes an accounting of accomplishments, deed after deed, carefully chosen to reinforce our perceptions of their greatness.
The speeches of the nominees are road maps into the future. They become prophets distilling their messages to explain their visions. And like prophets, they recount the signs, sometimes of doom and sometimes of success; sometimes of fear and sometimes of hope. They are looking to manage our perceptions so that their specific vision becomes the shape of our world. They each want to become our leader, our Arthur, our Odin.
The designers want us to recognize in their candidate the capacity for leadership and greatness. They want us to see in their candidate the grace of an exceptional leader who, like Odin, is intensely concerned with responsibility and wisdom. A leader who, again like Odin, is powerful in battle and powerful in reason. A leader who values knowledge so fully that to gain it, as the Rúnatal attests, painfully becomes his own oblation to further it. They want us to see in their leader the face of Odin embracing the role of service and teaching us that leading demands sacrifice.
Seriously, they really want this, and they bring to bear the science of persuasion and leadership to accomplish that aim. More than 70 years ago, social scientists discovered that authoritative stances did not result in effective leadership; they only made someone do something.
In a landmark study at the Ohio State University, two dimensions emerged as critically important to effective leadership: (1) organizing people toward goals while (2) being trustworthy and compassionate (See Bass (1990) for complete discussion). The artificers of the candidate myth will infuse a candidates’ stories with evidence of these dimensions and more. Myth-making is full-time and full-on. We’re expected to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle with popcorn and Kool-Aid (or a mojito, as it were).
But conventions are not just about the past and a leader. Like ritual, they are also about the future: the manifestation of a future state. As I watched speech after speech end in “God Bless the United States of America!” what each speaker actually could have easily added was, “So mote it be!”
These speeches are not prayers. They are not supplications to greater powers. They are arrangements by expert craftsmen carving word upon word on the mind of the listener. Each word conveying a meaning and sentence altering perception. Their purpose is distortion. Political speeches are attempts to re-organize the universe of facts to promote a platform and garner a vote.
They are attempts to bend the will. That very thought reminded me of the Magician, the first trump card of the Major Arcana. In divination, as many will know, it is the card that follows the Fool. What strikes me about this card is how it informs us of the strengths and risks of a great magician. If it appears in divination upright, it represents that noble power of orchestrating magic toward change, holding space between the earthly and divine realms to bring forth that divine immanence and energy on present problems. The Magician becomes the fulfillment of potential and the challenge to use our energies to continue evolving the world around us.
The Magician card also exposes that the symbols and artifacts of change are themselves sources of manipulation. The card shows us how the minor arcana are left on the table. They are used as prisms to bind our perception so we see the world in only one way, and that latter outcome is inconsistent with how Pagans conduct our lives. As a community we strive to unhook ourselves from the judgments and mechanical perceptions that limit our ability to live genuinely.
In reverse form, that first trump card represents the egotistical intoxication of power. It augurs miscommunication and the negative aspects of manipulations. The reversed Magician uses his art to hook us into symbols and tropes that create a fragmented life where our awareness is tinged with fear and our hope is managed through hate. This is very seductive; because this Magician also gives us selfish solutions that end up being easy answers. The Magician reversed suggests power for personal gain and control. This Magician is a fraud.
The recent political conventions also showed me why they are attempts at magic but fail to be magical. Conventions are triangles: they look like ritual but lack the circle. Conventions are designed as giant megaphones to change perception. But despite the rhetoric of community and the people, the pageantry and power are all top-down. They are voices on a stage cast into a receptive audience. There is no balance, only lip service to it.
Through circles, we remind ourselves that no one has more voice than the other, no one has more power than the other, no more rights than the other- even if those others are presidential candidates. We remind ourselves that magic happens when working in balance, facing and respecting each other, much like that famous table.
Bass, B.M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership. New York: Free Press.
Fischbein, R. & Lord, R.G. (2004). Implicit leadership theories. In Encyclopedia of Leadership. Burns, J.M., Cho, K., Goethals, G.R. & Sorenson, G.J. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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