Applied Classics: Santorum, Herodotus and the Art of Political Fantasy

02/15/2012 01:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Never underestimate the political power of a tall tale. Dog-headed men. The climate hoax. Super-sized, gold-digging ants. Class warfare. 300 Greeks against five million Persians. Pray away the gay.

Whether in the 5th century BCE or the 21st century AD, politics requires truly outlandish fictions, and freshly minted Republican frontrunner Rick Santorum is wasting no time putting his on display. At last weekend's CPAC conference, Santorum retold some familiar conservative tales -- helping the poor requires tax cuts for the wealthy; climate change is a liberal hoax -- as if a generation's worth of economic and scientific evidence have done nothing but prove him right.

"You aren't entitled to your own facts," the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say. Sadly for him and for us, democracies ancient and modern have proven Moynihan wrong. The voters behind the Santorum surge have proclaimed a sling of self-evident truths -- Obama is a socialist; we can balance the budget with tax cuts; the solution on immigration is a really big wall -- and otherwise articulate, graduate-degree-bearing politicians trip over each other in agreement. (If you're saying to yourself, "Maybe the candidates really do believe this stuff," I can assure you that a truly off-the-record chat with any living politician will disabuse you.)

Our problem, then: how can smart, accomplished people -- the men and women we elevate to America's highest offices -- possibly pretend to believe the shibboleths of the Democratic and Republican fringe?

As explainer and antidote, in steps the peerless fabulist and father of history, Herodotus.

From the temples of Libya to the shores of the Black Sea, Herodotus of Helicarnassus was the original frequent flier. There had been chroniclers before Herodotus, recorders of wars and heroes, but in the 460's BCE the young traveller seized on a central problem -- how had tiny Greece turned back the Persian invasion a generation before -- and set about untangling the deep causes and effects of human events. The rest, as they say, was history.

But the line between logical explanation and instructive fable was as fuzzy then as it is now. What's more, Herodotus had the tools of America's two-party fantasy machine figured out 2400 years early. The space between fact and fantasy, he said, is where all the world's political ideologies are born.

Here are his three keys to understanding them.

First, political fantasies comfort and explain. Like modern politicians, Herodotus wanted to boil a complex problem down to a digestible and recognizable story, not to dazzle his listeners but to more clearly and elegantly explain what they already felt to be true.

But just as Rick Santorum can't say "I support smaller government and traditional values" and be done with it, Herodotus understood that colorful stories are the bait that hooks your audience. Thus, the Persian army that met 300 Spartans at Thermopylae wasn't just big, according to the Greek: it was five million strong.

Leave aside that this was more than the entire population of Greece and that an army that big would have starved to death en route: which is more impressive, beating a "big army," or facing down 5.2 million men? Like Hermain Cain's "9-9-9," if you remember the number, you've probably already taken the bait.

Second, political fantasies help us pick our fights. Herodotus understood that for better or worse, political identity is only forged in a contest of "us" and "them," with special emphasis on the "them."

Why does Newt Gingrich get so much applause for his cheap line about Obama being a "food stamp president"? Because ever since the "welfare queen" fables of the Reagan era, Republican politicians have sold the fantasy, in endlessly creative euphemisms, that Democrats want to give your tax money to poor, lazy black people. (In the same breath, it is worth calling out the slightly rarer but equally indefensible liberal fantasy that every Obama critic is a secret racist.)

The Greeks of Herodotus' day had a sense of what made them special -- their ructious brand of freedom, their cleverness, their reverence for gods and law -- but it took Herodotus to illuminate how special Greekness was in distinction to the tyrants and savages everywhere else.

This notion of difference gives force to good political ideas as well as bad ones -- America believes in educating women; the Taliban does not -- but truly great leaders, the Lincolns and Gandhis, are the ones who can clarify these differences and then reconcile them. Obama has tried and so far failed to reconcile America; the Republican presidential candidates aren't even trying.

Third, political fantasies are good old-fashioned entertainment. Though Herodotus laces his book with caveats -- "my business is to record what people say," he winks at one point, "but I am by no means bound to believe it" -- neither can he resist a good anecdote about skull-drinking Scythians or the harems of Babylon.

The best political stories, of course, titillate listeners while leading them back to the main argument. You can nod at Herodotus' assertion that tyrants are bad, but it's only when he recounts how the Emperor Xerxes ordered the Bosphorus River to be whipped as punishment for flooding that you really get it.

What left-leaning observers too easily miss is that the GOP candidates really aren't crazy fantasists at all: they understand their base with pinpoint precision, and fire up their imaginations accordingly. And when they get a crowd riled up behind them, it's one hell of a holler.

Great minds like Herodotus used stories to elevate and inspire; lesser minds use them to confuse and frighten. With the exception of Ron Paul on foreign policy and perhaps even Rick Perry on immigration, the 2012 GOP candidates have decided that following the base is a lot easier than leading it somewhere.

Like Xerxes' unstoppable Persian menace, the fantasy machine spins on. What intrepid band of "reality-based" fighters will turn them back?