Happy Presidents Day! – On Mimetic Theory and How I Lost Political Ambition

Happy Presidents Day! – On Mimetic Theory and How I Lost Political Ambition February 16, 2015
Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

Like many children growing up in the US, I had dreams of becoming the president. My political career got off to a pretty good start. In high school, I was Freshman Class President, Junior Class President, and then Student Body President my senior year. During college, I was involved in the Student Senate and my senior year I was the Vice President of the Student Body.

I was well on my way to becoming President of the United, don’t you think? And when I turned 35 last year, I made it Facebook official and announced my candidacy for the President of the United States.


It’s a hashtag, so it’s gotta be true.

But then I read this passage about political leaders from René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred,

The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.

So, I’m rethinking my political ambitions…

Girard was specifically talking about ancient kings, who were paradoxically revered and demonized. Girard claims that all human institutions, including political institutions, emerge from the “scapegoat mechanism.” To summarize, Girard postulates that whenever conflicts began to threaten ancient peoples, they would find cohesion by uniting against a sacrificial victim. This victim was the group’s scapegoat. He or she was blamed for all the group’s conflicts and was then sacrificed. The violent sacrifice created a temporary sense of peace, but conflicts would soon re-emerge and the scapegoat mechanism was re-enacted.

The sacrificial victim was demonized as the cause of conflict, but after the sacrifice, the victim was venerated at the cause of peace. Hence the paradox of the scapegoat being revered and demonized. As Wolfgang Palaver writes in his book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory,

The sacrificial victim…is marked by double transference; it is viewed initially as absolutely evil, that is, as responsible for the plight that has descended on the given society, and retroactively as absolutely benevolent, i.e, as a harbinger of peace that has rescued the community from its plight.

Ancient kingship emerged from the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism. Palaver states that the group’s future sacrificial victim was infused with prestige as a “harbinger of peace” and that “It is not uncommon in primitive cultures that the victim chosen for ritual sacrifice is granted the highest social privileges before its impending murder.”

The highest social privilege involved political rule, but that privilege came with a cost. Our ancient ancestors weren’t stupid; they knew the sacrificial cost kingship. Palaver points out that many ancient people were unwilling to take political roles and that many kings were “forced with violence to take on the position.” Why? Because kings were blamed for any problems that plagued the community and thus were always potential, if not nearly always, sacrificial victims. “This fear of being appointed a king is not unfounded,” states Palaver, “in many cultures, kings were simply killed if they were unable to overcome crises such as droughts or bad harvests.”

Fortunately, we moderns don’t tend to kill our political rulers, which is good progress, but we are moved by the same scapegoating dynamic as our ancestors. Presidents act as cultural lightning rods for adoration during times of prosperity and hatred during times of crisis.

During those times of cultural crisis, we can find cohesion if there is one person we can blame, let’s say…a president. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew this. Thus, they made sure that the executive branch was occupied by one person. Palaver highlights Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the US and one of the most important original interpreters of the US Constitution. Hamilton believed that executive power must remain, as much as possible, with one person “so that the people can attribute the mistakes of the government to a single responsible individual.” Hamilton argued that this would make it possible, “to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or a series of measures, ought really to fall.”

So, thanks to my friends René Girard and Wolfgang Palaver, I no longer dream of being president. I do, however, have greater respect for anyone who takes on the role of future scapegoat president.

So, Hillary, you can have it.

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