Ideas on Europe

Why political myths matter

Why political myths matter

For our weekly "Ideas on Europe" editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Alicja Próchniak, from Loughborough University, in London.

Your PhD research deals with the role and function of political myths and their impact on foreign policy. That sounds very theoretical. Can you tell us more about it?

The concept of political myth is understudied in academic research, and the existing scope of literature is scattered across several scientific disciplines. An important author, considered to be a pioneer of this concept, is Roland Barthes, with his well-known book Mythologies, published in 1957. He was building upon the original sign analysis, often referred to as ‘semiology’, developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

How do myths work? Can you give us a concrete example?

Sure. Let’s start with Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology, condemned to repeat the same task of rolling a large stone up a hill for eternity. In English, we have the expression ‘Sisyphean work’. Normally, ‘work’ means an activity or task that involves the use of mental or physical effort to achieve a specific objective. However, the expression ‘Sisyphean work’ means an endless and futile task. This is exactly the nature of myth as described by Barthes. The meaning goes beyond what is actually said.

How does this fit into politics? After all, you are writing a PhD at an ‘Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance’!

Myths are everywhere in political discourse. According to Christopher Flood, a political myth is ‘an ideologically marked narrative’ which claims to give, I quote : ‘a true account of past, present, or predicted political events and which is accepted as valid in its essentials by a social group’.

Other researchers have explained that myths go beyond narratives or ideology, as they contribute to a ‘sacralisation’ of politics. They frame discourse in quasi-religious terms, and they contain sacred elements that elevate the power of narrative to the range of religious authority.

Can you provide an illustration of such mechanisms of sacralization?

A good example is American exceptionalism, which is not a religious phenomenon in itself, but has very important religious roots and connotations. Joanne Esch, a researcher from Colorado, has identified three main ideas of the American myth of exceptionalism:

First, America as ‘God’s chosen nation’. This myth provides meaning to the country’s political and historical experience and the general direction of its politics.

Second, the United States as a ‘nation with a calling’. This refers to America a special mission in the world, given by God, the creation of a global order of democracy and freedom. The use of such a myth in official political rhetoric helps to legitimize policies that do not always comply with international law, like for instance the ‘War on Terror’ launched by George W. Bush.

And third, America represents the forces of good against evil. The myth of ‘God’s chosen nation’ leads to stipulating that the country represents the ‘forces of Good’ against ‘the forces of Evil’. It’s the myths that create the quasi-religious underpinning of the country’s image of itself and its place in the world.

The United States are perhaps a quite extreme example in their permanent reference to religious myths?

All countries have their political myths. Just think of France as ‘the country of Human Rights’. Or the way in which the European Union refers to its mission as ‘peace-builder’ on the continent. The difference between them is the extent to which these myths are critically discussed.

Given the important domestic and international implications of myths, the topic of political myths has received surprisingly little attention in the studies of International Relations. We are now starting to understand that they are especially influential in shaping security and foreign policy. And that’s what I am working on in my PhD research.

Thank you very much, for sharing your original research with us. Keep us posted on the progress of your work! I recall you are based on the London campus of Loughborough University.

Interview by Rune Mahieu.