Let’s start with some definitions:
Myth: A myth is not a lie. A myth is a story, compounded of fact and fiction, that expresses something fundamental about the worldview and the values of the people who tell it: what they assume about how the world is and how people should and do live in it. The people who tell a myth do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, it shapes their view of truth; it tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. A mythic story can be told explicitly, or it can be merely implied by a few brief words or an image or action. Either way, a myth evokes powerful emotions because it expresses something essential about the identity of the group and its members, as they see it.
The United States: a very real place, a political state full of land, people, things, resources, and much more.
America: a mythic place; the version and the vision of the United States that Americans conjure up in their minds when they imagine what their nation is, what it has been, what it could be; what its role in the world is, has been, and could be; what their own role in the nation is and might be; what it means to be an American.
We can’t get inside people’s minds to know what they are imagining. But mythic America exists outside people’s minds, too, in the words, images, and actions they use to give tangible shape and expression to their imaginings. Those are the building blocks of mythic America. So “America” is the United States in its totality — its people, its land, and all of its constituent elements — as it has been, is, and might be represented in the words, images, and actions of Americans. “America” also includes all of the lands and people that have been imagined, at one time or another, as potential additions to the United States.
American: 1. noun: speaking mythically, an American is anyone who identifies (or has identified) as a member of the United States community in political, social, and/or cultural terms. This usage may offend inhabitants of other Western hemisphere lands who, quite understandably, resent seeing the United States take sole possession of the term “American.” However as a mythic reality the term as defined here has such a long history and so much global impact that it deserves this special usage; 2. adj.: Speaking mythically, “American”can describe anything that is imagined to be uniquely or particularly characteristic of mythic America.
Myths are constantly changing. There have always been new mythic visions coming from the full spectrum of American voices. And we are all free to create new mythic images of America. Yet most of us, for the most part, use the building blocks we have inherited from the past. They form a relatively stable fund of words, images, and actions that give an enduring, familiar structure to mythic America.
A relatively small number of Americans hold disproportionate power in creating that fund of myth. White European men were the first to imagine and speak of a place called America. White men of European descent created the United States and called it America. White men — especially wealthy white men — have always dominated the mythic landscape and to a large extent still do, though they are gradually losing the total control they once had. Even though elite leadership is becoming more diverse, elites in political, economic, and media institutions still dominate the national discourse.
To understand the landscape of American public life, especially its political life, we must give special attention to the mythic traditions created and disseminated by elite leaders because they still exert so much control, especially over the mass media. Yet we must also remain alert to the possibilities that are always available for new myths to replace the old.
That’s a quick overview. For more detail, go to “The Meaning of ‘Myth’ in the American Context.”