[Paleopsych] CHE: Redemption and American Politics
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Redemption and American Politics
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.12.3
By DAN P. McADAMS
Democrats woke up November 3 to see that they no longer lived in the
America they had always imagined. They hoped a well-informed and
self-interested citizenry would oust an administration whose tax
reform favors mainly the rich, whose foreign policy has cost friends
and made enemies abroad, and whose faith-based approach to leadership
has exalted conservative ideology over rational discourse and
scientific evidence. But President Bush's decisive victory in the
popular vote combined with the sea of red spilling across the
Tuesday-night electoral map suggests that blue-state Democrats are now
out of touch with much of the rest of the country.
What explains this disconnect? Already pundits and pollsters have
suggested many different possibilities -- from religiosity to gay
marriage to the fear of Osama bin Laden. From my standpoint, however,
the key factor is narrative. Put simply, the Republicans are better
More precisely, the Republican Party has groomed candidates and honed
messages that resonate deeply with a story of life that Americans hold
dear. It is the narrative of redemption -- a story about an innocent
protagonist in a dangerous world who sticks to simple principles and
overcomes suffering and hardship in the end. This is a story that many
productive and caring American adults -- Democrats, Republicans, and
Independents -- love to tell about their own lives. Republicans,
however, have found ways of talking about public life and political
issues that reinforce this story. And to the extent that politics is
personal, many Americans may vote their story, rather than their
As a research psychologist, I study how people tell stories about
their own lives. My students and I collect these stories and analyze
them as if they were works of literary fiction. Indeed, they are
fiction, to a certain extent. People selectively remember the past and
imagine their own futures to produce coherent narratives of the self
that will provide their lives with some sense of unity and purpose.
Stories give us our identities.
In our research, we focus on the life stories told by those adults who
score very high on both objective and self-reported psychological
measures of social responsibility and productivity. We want to
understand especially well-adjusted people who are making the most
positive contributions to their work, families, and society at large.
Be they liberal or conservative, these highly productive and caring
American adults tend to describe their own lives as variations on a
general script that we call the redemptive self.
The story of the redemptive self in American life has two key themes.
The first is the belief that as a young child, I was fortunate,
blessed, or advantaged in some manner, even as others around me
experienced suffering and pain. I am the innocent protagonist, chosen
for a special, manifest destiny. As I journey forth in a dangerous
world, I hold to simple truths, basic values of goodness and decency.
Research shows that highly productive and caring American adults,
especially in their midlife years, are much more likely than other
people to remember their past in this way. They are also more likely
to claim that they have always operated according to deep personal
values that are clear and true. While their values may not be those of
George W. Bush, they tell stories about their lives that, like the
president's own, underscore the power of moral clarity.
Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville
observed that Americans "have an immensely high opinion of themselves
and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the
rest of the human race." Tocqueville realized that the Americans'
sense of special destiny lay partly in their celebration of the
individual self. "One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,"
proclaimed Walt Whitman. And, "Is not a man better than a town?" asked
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Self-Reliance. (The fact that a town is made
up of individual men -- and women -- seems strangely absent from
Emerson's thinking.) Not only are we the chosen people, Emerson
suggested, but each individual man (or woman) is chosen for a special
destiny. That individual destiny is inscribed within an inner self
that is always true and good. In Emerson's uniquely American brand of
romantic individualism, the good and productive life is the heroic
actualization of the inner self.
Flash forward 150 years or so. In interviews, highly productive and
caring American adults tend to begin the stories of their own lives in
the same way. They speak the language of chosen-ness and manifest
destiny, albeit in contemporary and personal ways. To a significantly
greater extent than adults who score lower on measures of care and
productivity, they will identify a specific incident from childhood as
symbolic of their enhanced status, as if to suggest that they have
known they were special, that they were chosen, for a very long time.
At the same time, productive and caring American adults are especially
likely to say that they held an early awareness that the world is not
fair and that many other people suffer greatly. The juxtaposition of
inner blessing and hardship in the outside world sets up a moral
contrast. I need to use my goodness to make the world a better place.
I need to use my gift in a positive way. The sense of individual
mission that runs through the redemptive self is often linked to life
principles consolidated in the teenage years, be the formative
influences Ayn Rand, Maya Angelou, Tuesdays With Morrie, or Jesus.
(While many cringed, Bush's fans ate it up when he identified Jesus
Christ as his "favorite political philosopher" in a 2000 debate with
The protagonists in these stories are not the tormented souls or
ironic drifters celebrated by European existentialist writers and
postmodern literary critics. They don't wake up in the middle of the
night wondering what the meaning of life is. They know what is right,
more or less, and they strive to put their life principles into
action. There is a decided lack of ambivalence about moral and ethical
values in the life stories of highly productive and caring American
adults, be they evangelical Christians or card-carrying members of the
American Civil Liberties Union. Instead, we witness clear-eyed,
no-nonsense protagonists who have too many things to do and too little
time to waste on a searching re-examination of what is good and true,
who is God, and what they believe in their hearts to be right.
From Benjamin Franklin to Michael Jordan, prototypical American heroes
and heroines are more pragmatic than reflective. They are too restless
for prolonged philosophical debate. They brush aside nagging doubts,
ignore complexities. They attach themselves to a few simple principles
in life and then they move forward with vigor and confidence.
The second major theme in the story of the redemptive self is
overcoming hardships and adversity. Especially caring and productive
American adults often tell stories about their lives in which
emotionally negative events lead directly to reward. These stories
take many different forms. Stories of atonement describe a religious
move from sin to salvation. Stories of upward social mobility depict
the socioeconomic move from rags to respectability and riches. Stories
of recovery tell how sick or addicted protagonists regained their
health or sobriety. Stories of liberation chart the move from feeling
enslaved to feeling free. From Franklin to Oprah, from Horatio Alger
to 12-step programs, American folklore and culture have provided a
treasure trove of redemptive narratives from which we all
(unconsciously) borrow in fashioning the stories of our own lives.
The burgeoning popular literature on self-help offers a cornucopia of
redemption tales, as do television talk shows, People magazine, and
Hollywood. Politicians often celebrate their own redemptive journeys:
Ronald Reagan rose from a dysfunctional family; Bill Clinton
(nicknamed "the Comeback Kid") recovered from childhood poverty (as
well as many self-inflicted wounds); George W. Bush turned his life
around in his 40s, after years of drifting and drinking; John Edwards
started out "the son of a mill worker," but he rose from there.
Surveying American novels and short stories from recent years, the New
York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote, "There is no public
narrative more potent today -- or throughout American history -- than
the one about redemption."
George W. Bush's personal story follows closely the script of the
redemptive self. Born with a special blessing, he came close to
squandering it all before he gave up alcohol, found the Lord, and
rededicated his life to public service. It is a powerful recovery
narrative, starring the kind of guileless protagonist that many
In this kind of story, moral clarity trumps worldly sophistication
(and debating skills). His detractors may call him stupid,
simple-minded, and stubborn. But many voters see Bush as sincere and
well meaning. They like that he does not seem to obsess over the
complexities of the world. They find assurance in his commitment to
simple principles. And even those who are not born-again Christians
may admire his recovery story. We are all sinners, after all. Yet in
the eyes of many people, Bush really seems to have redeemed his sinful
past. For the past 10 years or so, he has kept his eyes on the prize.
He has remained steadfast, unwavering. He has lived out a destiny to
which he feels he has been called.
More important than the president's own story, however, is the way in
which optimistic (if sometimes simplistic) Republican messages about
"values," faith-based initiatives, individual freedom and
responsibility, and the "ownership society" reinforce a grand
narrative about a good and innocent protagonist who takes charge of
his own life, stays focused through adversity, and ultimately triumphs
in the end.
The heroes in this story are the small-business owners, the
entrepreneurs, the soldiers, the preachers, and the un-self-conscious
individualists who, like Emerson, trust the good and simple "man" over
the ambiguous and complex "town." The enemies are ambiguous and
complex collectives of various kinds -- "big government," for example,
bureaucracies, the United Nations, and programs and policies that
potentially compromise the innocent strivings of the good inner self.
It does not matter much that Republicans have actually grown the
government (to say nothing of the deficit) rather than shrunk it, that
they also advocate certain kinds of government programs and policies.
It does not matter because politics is as much about stories as it is
about anything else. Republicans are masters at simplifying the world
into upbeat narratives about good protagonists who will find
redemption in the end. By reducing taxes, empowering faith, and
assuring national security, they promise to clear away the many
obstacles and complexities that clutter up the world and stand in the
path of the redemptive hero's quest.
The attacks of September 11 and the "war on terrorism," furthermore,
play perfectly into the story of the redemptive self. Terrorism and
war show us that the world is a dangerous, unredeemed place. In times
of crisis, the good American protagonist must call upon the deepest
reservoir of unwavering conviction and hope.
A dangerous world is indeed the kind of world that the good and strong
hero of the redemptive self seems unconsciously to expect. Under
conditions of adversity, he will fight the good fight. He will keep
the faith. In the end, his suffering will give way to redemption. And
along the way, he may even help to redeem others.
Dan P. McAdams is a professor of human development and social policy
at Northwestern University and author of The Redemptive Self: Stories
Americans Live By, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
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