Public Mythology


Late historian and US state consultant Carroll Quigley summarized the “organization of power” as “the ways in which obedience and consent (or acquiescence) are obtained.” From Quigley’s perspective, one seemingly shared broadly among political analysts, limited methods exist for creating compliance.

…there are three basic ways to win obedience: by force, by buying consent with wealth, and by persuasion.1

Quigley’s work with the US Department of Defense, Navy, Smithsonian and others gives the paradigm a realistic feel. Other Washington insiders provide corroboration. Joseph Nye, former Dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, uses the same terms when he describes how to achieve compliance. The one-time Trilateral Commission chair and Council on Foreign Relations director created the terms “soft” and “hard” powers in the 1980s.2

How is soft power expressed? Soft power brokers oversee the creation and maintenance of public mythology. Academic and attorney Philip Zelikow, former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, credits historian William McNeill for coining the term but thinks the word myth invokes negative implications. Zelikow prefers the term “presumption” instead. “Such presumptions are beliefs (1) thought to be true (although not necessarily known to be true with certainty), and (2) shared in common within the relevant political community. The sources for such presumptions are both personal (from direct experience) and vicarious (from books, movies, and myths).”3

“Myth” and “presumption” both suggest something that is less than real. But reading what originator McNeill says about public mythology, there is agreement. Myths, wrote the historian in 1982, “are based on faith more than on fact.”4 He maintained that myths can’t be expected to last without investment, especially in liberal democracies.

By allowing dissenters of any and every stripe a chance to express their views, liberals from the seventeenth century onwards hoped and believed that a kind of natural selection among myths would prevail.5

Evolution took a different course. Instead, media splintered. Self-interested media bubbles emerged to serve different ideological tribes. With deregulation, tribes were free to run with their own perspectives but each was less and less able to produce a leader with a suitably comprehensive explanation for everyone else.

Following the popularization of television as a news-delivery medium, interest groups and their public relations aides began using living room sets to separate voters from a genuine understanding of election issues. This was accomplished with the help of a basket of techniques, including the shortening of a typical scene. A 1992 University of California study found the average soundbite had shrunk from forty-three seconds in 1968 to just nine in 1988.6 A similar phenomenon in newspaper design was measured around the end of the 19th century. The average length of political quotations had shrunk by 37%. In newspapers and television both, media consumers were left with less testable information. Advertisements and creative editing have filled the gaps.

The lack of fulsome explanation is hugely problematic for soft power brokers. Public myths are less easily maintained. It’s worse in the Internet age. The trend has the President of the United States preferring to communicate primarily through tweets, with their 280 character limit. Not only is Donald J. Trump a pathological liar, but he’s prone to espousing poorly considered myth on-the-fly. President Trump makes it difficult for all but the most ideologically or financially committed to accept the drivel.



In a 2008 Chatham House lecture, the late presidential and Rockefeller family adviser Zbiginew Brzezinski talked of soft power in the Internet-connected era. Brzezinski discussed how the public had become sophisticated in their comprehension of soft power aims, creating insecurity for the ruling class. There’s been a “global political awakening” where “for the first time in all of human history almost all of mankind is politically awake … activated politically conscious and interactive.”7 The usual tropes were breaking down, putting rulers in a difficult position. “[W]hile the lethality of their power is greater than ever, their capacity to impose control over the political awakened masses of the world is at a historical low.” Brzezinski put the transition in stark terms when he said that where once it was far easier to control a million people than kill them, the reverse is now true. Shoot me now!



  1. Quigley, Carroll. Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. (San Pedro, California: GSG & Associates Publishers, 1988, orig. 1966), 33.
  2. Nye, Jr., Joseph S.: What Is Power?” Center for Strategic & International Studies. [YouTube published April 19, 2016].
  3. Zelikow, Philip. (1998). Thinking About Political History. Miller Center Report, 4(3), 5-8.
  4. McNeill, William H. (1982). The Care and Repair of Public Myth. Foreign Affairs, 61(1), 1-13.
  5. Ibid, 2.
  6. Fehrman, Craig. “The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite.” The Boston Globe, January 2 2011.
  7. Gerczak, Deborah. “Obama Adviser Brzezinski’s Off the Record Speech to British Elites the Whitehead Lecture – Major Foreign Policy Challenges for the New Us Presidency.” (accessed December 11, 2019)