Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Value

Originally Published in The San Francisco Chronicle (Insight Article) August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
[link opens new window]

2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain

In early 2008 Toronto novelist Sheila Heti initiated a website of people’s dreams of the two Democratic Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Soon thereafter she added dreams of Republican candidate John McCain.   (www.metaphysicalpoll.com)

I’ve written three commentaries on these dreams: the first two originally appearing on the “Beacon Broadside” author’s blog  (http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/04/unravelling-mea.html) and the third appearing on the www.metaphysicalpoll.com website.  The full text of all three is below.

Dreaming of Barack and Hillary (and John)

At the conclusion of a recent New Yorker story (3-10-08) about her new website posting people’s dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti said, “I sort of hope that the campaign managers will change the way candidates give speeches as a result of people’s dream lives.  It must be telling them something.”

These dreams do have the potential to reveal meaningful facets of people’s political beliefs.  The frequency and intensity of a politician’s appearance in people’s dreams can be taken as an accurate index of his or her personal charisma.  The more people dream of a politician, the more likely that politician has made a deep emotional impact on them (both positively and negatively—Heti’s website has instances of both).

In 1992, when I first studied dreams of politicians during that year’s Presidential election, I heard numerous dreams of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and almost none of George H.W. Bush—no doubt where the charisma lay in that contest! As of today, Heti’s website contains 57 dreams of Obama, 49 of Hillary, and 2 of John McCain (to be fair, the space for McCain dreams was just created).  Now as then, the dreams offer a mix of the bizarre and the trivial, the profound and the absurd, the personally idiosyncratic and the socially relevant.  From a research perspective, the value of Heti’s website is that it provides further evidence that people dream not only about their private lives but also about public affairs like political contests.  Dreaming is not purely inward-looking; it also has the capacity to look outwards and express our feelings about the major concerns, conflicts, and challenges of our communities.

It should be noted that these kinds of anecdotal reports are limited in many ways.  The website offers almost no other information about the dreamer beyond the dream itself.  There are no additional associations from the dreamer about what the dream might mean to him or her, and no waking life context or background details.  The reports come from people in many different countries, and of course we can never be sure they aren’t just making up their dreams entirely (perhaps to put their favored candidate in a better light, or to cast aspersions on the candidate they want to lose).

With those caveats in mind, it can still be fun and potentially illuminating to ponder individual dreams like these:

“I was at a sweet country inn, the type of bed and breakfast that you would escape to for a romantic weekend. It could have been in upstate New York, or maybe New Hampshire. The inn was right next to a lake. A woman came down the stairs in a red bathing suit. She was magnetic, and everyone was staring at her. She carried herself so well in that bathing suit, even though her figure was not that of a supermodel. I admired her as well, and realized that I was having a little girl crush on Hillary, the lady in the bathing suit. However, I told my friends at the inn that I wasn’t going to vote for the dazzling senator.

”My friends were aghast. You mean, they said, that you won’t vote for your own Mother!”

(42-year old mother in Santa Monica, March 11)

“I was in a smoky, hazy hotel office/suite with Barack Obama. We had driven back together from a big rally and speech. He walked ahead of me and was dismissive, or maybe just distracted. I wasn’t sure whether he’d already won the presidency or was still just a candidate. I was acting as one of his assistants.

”I’d been respectfully carrying his coat and now I lay it on the bed. When I tried to engage him in some light banter about how he felt about the rally, he seemed distracted and annoyed. I was struck that in private, behind closed doors, he was a different man: cordial enough, certainly not mean-spirited, but his tone in private was nothing like his public persona.

”He reached for a pack of cigarettes, though the room was already smoky enough.”

(Tech start-up geek from California, March 10)

The best way to interpret these kinds of reports is to:

  1. keep it light (they’re dreams, after all!)
  2. be careful not to read too much into them, and
  3. use some of the basic methods of content analysis to highlight possible patterns of meaning.

I’m experimenting with different methods of analysis to study these dreams, and I’ll share my findings on this website over the next few of weeks.

Hopes and Warnings

Here are some of the questions I’ve heard people asking about these intriguing political fables from the nocturnal imagination.

Can we accept these as real dreams?
Cautiously, yes.  Some of the reports could easily be fake, but most sound genuine to me.

Why are so many people having dreams of Hillary and Barack?
It’s turning into a perfect storm of political dreaming.  First, the core supporters of both candidates (older white women for Hillary, multicultural youth for Barack) tend to be especially active dreamers—they are exactly the kinds of people who show up most often in dream classes and workshops, and I think it’s natural their political hopes and fears would find expression in their dreams.  Second, many Democrats are genuinely torn in both directions, and one thing we know from modern dream research is that people often experience an upsurge of dreaming during times of uncertainty and indecision.  And third, the feverish campaign coverage by the 24-hour news media has prompted unusually intense feelings of familiarity and intimacy with the candidates’ personal lives, to the point where we hear and think and talk about them almost non-stop.  In this kind of cultural environment, it would be surprising if we did not find at least some people dreaming about these omnipresent figures in the public eye.

So what exactly can we learn from these dreams?
Without a doubt, the Hillary and Barack dreams highlight the powerful interpersonal bonds each candidate has formed with his or her supporters.  There’s a good psychological reason why the electoral race is so close—both candidates are backed by passionately committed people whose dreams accurately reflect the emotional depths of their political convictions.  Here’s one of the positive Hillary dreams:

“Hillary Clinton and I were cleaning my parents’ attic. She was actually a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by “A Wife And Mother Who Scrapbooks”)

This is a neat little parable of Hillary’s candidacy—she’s more likeable than you might expect, and she’s going to work hard to clean up the mess left by the previous administration.

More surprising, perhaps, is how the dreams also point to the personality flaws and psychological shadows of the candidates.  For Hillary, this appears in dreams of her behaving angrily and aggressively.  An example:

“I was Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant and I was miserable, partially because we were working non-stop on little sleep, but also because she was a tyrant. It was about three in the morning after a rally. She yelled at me in front of a group of people for a small mix-up I had nothing to do with.”

(Posted on Feb. 25 by “A Woman Who Once Worked As An Assistant”)

In at least six reports, the dreamer does not like or support Hillary but feels compelled to lie to her about it:

“I was at a Kmart and Hillary was speaking to a small crowd. I began feeling really sorry for her and hugged her. Hillary asked me if I had voted for her. I hesitated and then said Yes, even though I hadn’t.”

(Posted on Feb. 27 by “A Middle-Aged Woman”)

Dreams like these suggest a perception of Hillary Clinton as strong and powerful but prone to using coercion and emotional manipulation to get her way.

The positive dreams of Barack are more numerous and more intense than those of Hillary, with what appears to be a higher percentage of good fortunes and magical events:

“I had such a great dream last night. Barack Obama came to my church and gave a speech. I don’t remember what he said, just that he was very eloquent. Afterwards he and his wife were standing near the doors, shaking hands. I went up to shake his hand and I was so nervous! He was like 8 feet tall in my dream, but when I reached out to take his hand he gave me the sweetest smile.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by a “Unitarian Universalist and Mom”)

The negative dreams of Barack point to the flip side of this giddy idealization: the potential for disappointment.  Quite a few of the Barack dreams leave the dreamer feeling unhappy, detached, and disillusioned—they want to stay close to him, they love being part of his wonderful movement, but they fear it can’t last:

“…He had been very nice to me on the run, when I felt I had him to myself, but then he became more interested in what was going on in the room and he ignored me. I felt hurt because of this and started to write him off, feeling that he wasn’t who he said he was….”

(Posted Feb. 28 by “A Student of Rhetoric in Louisiana”)

The warning that comes through in these dreams is that the higher the hopes you inspire, the more likely you are to disappoint those who have idealized your candidacy.

I’m still working on a more systematic evaluation of the dreams using word search and content analysis methods, and I’ll report on my findings as they emerge.  In the next posting I’ll take a look at the more salacious aspects of the dreams—Sex! Drugs! Violent death!  Celebrity cameos!—all the topics that give dreams such a good, wholesome reputation.

Wait a minute—Do you have some kind of political bias that’s influencing your interpretations?
Who do you support between Hillary and Barack?  I was raised in a Republican family and became a Libertarian in college; I’m now a registered Democrat with Green Party leanings, and a strong Obama supporter.  I don’t claim any special objectivity in my analysis of the dream reports, but I’m confident of my findings and I invite others to take a look at the dreams for themselves.  Every dream has multiple dimensions of meaning, and if you see something I’ve missed, feel free to tell me about it.

Downtrodden Hillary, Mystical Barack: An Analysis of the First 100 Dreams

People’s dreams of Hillary Clinton frequently show her as friendly and likeable, with an admirable willingness to help others.  But compared to dreams of Barack Obama, the Hillary dreams are darker and more negative.  They include more aggression than the Barack dreams and more emotions of fear, confusion, and sadness.  The Barack dreams have some negative elements, too, but they have an almost equally high number of friendly interactions and many more happy emotions and lucky/magical events—the very qualities I’ve found in previous research to define “mystical” dreams.

Before explaining these findings in more detail, I’d like to thank Sheila Heti for creating this excellent dream collection.  Her website offers a unique public forum for discussing dreams, and the dream reports themselves provide wonderful raw material for thinking about the political psychology of the 2008 U.S. Presidential race.  The fact that Sheila is Canadian adds an ironic twist to these quirky commentaries on the American political process.

The total number of Hillary and Barack dreams has just passed 100 for each candidate, and I believe that’s a minimal threshold number for identifying significant patterns in dream content.  In looking at anecdotal reports like these, it’s risky to focus too much attention on single dreams because we don’t have enough information from the individuals to confirm our interpretive hunches.  But if we look at a large number of dreams, broad patterns start to emerge that can be compared to other sources of dream research, giving us an empirical foundation for making inferences about what may or may not be going on in terms of meaning and significance.  (For more on research methods, see the note below.)

This analysis is still a work in progress.  So far I’ve noticed several themes and patterns that certainly appear to connect the first 100 dreams with prominent features of each candidate’s campaign activities and public persona.  That’s ultimately what makes these dreams so interesting: they reflect the passionate personal engagement many people feel towards Hillary and Barack, and they tell us what aspects of the campaign are making a particularly strong impact on the public imagination.

These are some of the content patterns I find most intriguing:

Friendliness: Both sets of dreams have an unusually high frequency of friendly social interactions.  Seventy six of the Barack dreams include at least one friendly act, as do eighty of the Hillary dreams (compared to 40% of the 1000 dreams gathered by Hall and Van de Castle, 1966; HVDC after this).  The most common theme in all these dreams is the dreamer and the candidate engaged in some kind of friendly behavior—hanging out together, talking, playing games, helping each other with problems.  This seems like an accurate indication of the psychological depth of support enjoyed by both candidates.

Aggression: Aggressive interactions, both physical and verbal, appear in 53 of the Hillary dreams and 39 of the Barack dreams (compared to 46% of the HVDC dreams).  Sixteen of the Hillary dreams and nine of the Barack dreams include some kind of physical aggression; Barack is the mostly the victim of physical aggression, while Hillary is equally its victim and instigator.  These frequencies suggest the perception of vulnerability and/or lack of aggressiveness in Barack and a confirmation of Hillary’s campaign claims to be a fighter, though not always in ways the dreamer appreciates.

Emotions. This is an especially difficult aspect of dream content to measure.  I use the HVDC system of five emotions (fear, anger, sadness, confusion, happiness) which, while not perfect, at least allows researchers a quick way of surveying the emotional terrain of a large set of dreams.  Analyzed in these terms, the most frequent emotions in the Hillary dreams are fear (34) and confusion (34), followed by happiness (23), sadness (16), and anger (15).  For Barack, the most frequent emotion is happiness (35), then confusion (28), fear (20), anger (16), and sadness (9).  When compared to the HVDC dreams, what stands out is the high happiness and low fear in the Barack dreams and the high confusion in the Hillary dreams.  No one would deny, I think, that Hillary’s campaign has been surprised by Obama’s rise and unsure of how to regain her once formidable lead.  Nor could anyone who’s attended an Obama rally dispute the idea that he’s trying to banish people’s fears and stimulate their hopes.  Perhaps one could say the Barack dreamers are too happy and not scared enough—that’s a charge made by his “realist” critics.

Good fortunes: A “good fortune,” in terms of content analysis, is anything magical or unusually beneficial that happens to a character.  Seven of the Hillary dreams have some kind of good fortune, a slightly lower proportion than the 12% in the HVDC dreams.  Nineteen of the Barack dreams include a good fortune, a relatively high number that seems plausibly related to his aura of extraordinary potential and transformative power.  It could also, following Bill Clinton, reflect an association between Barack and the “fairy tale” qualities of his candidacy.

Sexual dreams: There are 11 dreams with at least one sexual interaction in the Hillary set and 9 in the dreams of Barack, which seems about average to me.  All but one of the Barack sexual dreams involve him and the dreamer, and I suspect these dreams symbolize the intimate sense of personal connection his supporters feel with him.  Nearly half the sexual activities in the Hillary dreams do not involve her directly, but rather her husband Bill.  No surprise there—public perception of Hillary is still dogged by memories of Bill’s sexual misbehavior.

Shadows: The dreams also reveal the flaws and weaknesses people perceive in the two candidates.  In several of the Hillary dreams the dreamer feels compelled to lie to Hillary, to hide from her the dreamer’s true feelings, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of pity.  This can’t be a good sign of the trust and honesty people feel in relation to her campaign.  With Barack, people’s fears revolve around his failure to live up to their expectations; in some dreams he disappoints them, leaving the dreamer feeling deflated and alone.  The soaring idealization of Barack’s candidacy carries the risk of precipitous disillusionment as he attempts to make real the mystical aspirations of his supporters.

Note: I mentioned findings from two of my earlier articles: on mystical dreams, “Sacred Sleep: Scientific Contributions to the Study of Religiously Significant Dreaming,” in The New Science of Dreaming, edited by Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara (Praeger, 2007); on good fortunes, “Revision of the Good Fortunes Scale: A New Tool for the Study of “Big” Dreams,” Dreaming (2006) 16.1:11-21.  I’ve written two earlier commentaries on the Hillary and Barack dreams on the Beacon Press author’s blog, where I say more about the limits of this kind of data and my own personal biases in studying these dreams.

American Dreamers: Let’s Focus on the Focus Group

Here is some information about the dreamers who made up the focus group for the research in my book American Dreamers.

The 10 members of the “dreamers focus group”

Elizabeth is a fifty-eight year old hospital technician from Kentucky who has overcome the challenges posed by two divorces, several alcoholic family members, breast cancer and chemotherapy, and a number of other serious medical conditions requiring surgery.  She considers herself a “survivor.”  For many years she has been energetically involved in the activities of her local Disciples of Christ Church community.  Elizabeth’s a registered Democrat who says she’s very liberal in her political beliefs, although she favors more freedom for gun owners and voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

Kip is a fifty-two year old ranch manager and horse trainer from Northern California.  Twenty years ago she took her seventeen-month old baby and left her second husband to form a new family with her partner Janet, a local sheriff.  They’ve been together ever since, and Kip’s daughter just graduated from college.  Raised in a strict Catholic family, Kip is now very independent spiritually and laughingly considers herself a member of the “church of the living hoof.”  She’s a Democratic voter who detests President Bush, although in general she’s not much interested in partisan politics.  Her views used to be more liberal, but today she says she’s “hardened up a bit,” and if anything considers herself a political moderate.

Two married couples are included in the group of ten participants.  The first of these couples went through an incredibly harrowing series of life challenges during the year of their journal-keeping.  Dan is a thirty-six year old Army Special Forces sergeant, a career soldier approaching the twenty-year retirement mark.  He left for his third tour in Iraq during the journal-keeping year.  Raised Catholic, he is politically conservative and believes the U.S. is engaged in a difficult but necessary long-term battle to “plant the seeds of democracy” in the Arab world.

Dan has been married for five years to Sophia, a thirty-one year old who takes care of their preschool-age daughter in their home on the outskirts of Dan’s current base in North Carolina.  Sophia has always been an active dreamer, and in her local community she’s known as someone who’s available to talk about dreams.  She’s politically conservative and supportive of President Bush, but spiritually progressive in avoiding fundamentalist church-goers and seeking alternative, non-Christian sources of wisdom.  Soon after she began keeping her sleep and dream journal, and right after Dan received his latest deployment notice, Sophia discovered she was pregnant.  Her journal thus became a record of her sleep and dream experiences across the nine-month term of her pregnancy, the last half of which she spent alone while Dan fought in Iraq.

The remaining six members of this group are, or have been, residents of the same rural, economically-depressed county in Western New York.  Richard is a forty-eight year old hospital security manager who was born in Germany and immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was one year old.  His views tend to be conservative both religiously and politically (he’s pro-Bush and pro-Iraq war).  He used to be registered as a Democrat but recently changed his affiliation to Republican.  Relatively short of stature, Richard has a black belt in karate and is the founder of a successful, all-volunteer animal rehabilitation clinic in his community.

Grace, a forty-six year old preschool teacher, is Richard’s wife.  She says she’s becoming increasingly conservative in her politics, and for the most part she supports President Bush, although she usually tries to pay as little attention to political current events as possible.  Raised as a Catholic, she is now more interested in Christian spirituality outside of formal church settings.  She and Richard have a nine-year old daughter whom they adopted as a baby, and whose well-being is the core concern of their lives.

Will is a twenty-six year old man who grew up in a town close to where Richard and Grace live.  He’s well educated, highly intelligent, and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects.  He’s had difficulty in school and work, though, due in part to a hand deformity and a history of emotional troubles.  Will is politically liberal and an avowed atheist—two qualities that further alienate him from the traditionalist mores of his conservative Catholic surroundings.

Paul is an eighty year old former Catholic priest who left his Franciscan order to marry an ex-nun.  They raised four children, then divorced; he remains on good terms with her, even though she remarried soon after they split.  Paul considers himself wiser now about religion than when he was a priest, and he leads a physically and socially active life.  A pro-Bush, pro-war Democrat, he is an avid viewer of Fox television news.

Lola is a 49-year old administrator at a retirement home.  Her life was scarred by a heart-rending tragedy ten years ago—in the heat of a family argument, one of her sons shot and killed her other son.  They were fourteen and eleven years old at the time.  The echoes of that awful fratricide continue to reverberate in her family, in her local community, and in her dreams.  Lola was raised Lutheran, though she does not currently attend church.  She prays regularly and considers spirituality to be immensely important in her life.  Politically she’s a conservative Republican, though she’s sickened by the war (one of her nephews is in the Army, serving his first tour in Iraq) and she can’t bear to watch or listen to the news anymore.

Nadine is a 24-year old waitress living in Florida, engaged to be married and planning to move soon to Colorado.  Raised as a Catholic in the same Western New York region, Nadine recently moved away from home and is trying to start a new life on her own.  She hasn’t entirely rejected Catholicism, but she avoids organized religion in general, preferring to pursue her interests in Native American spiritual traditions. Her political views are mostly liberal (she worked for two years in Americorps, the youth volunteer program founded by Bill Clinton), although she is very upset that affirmative action policies limit the financial opportunities for “non-minority” people like her.

Dream series available for study

Five of the focus group dream series—those of Will, Paul, Grace, Lola, and Sophia—as well as collections of dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are available for study at www.dreambank.net, along with dozens of other dream series gathered from other sources.  Instructions for performing easy word-search analyses of these dreams can be found by clicking the website’s “help” button.

Is My Dream Research Biased? A Quick Look at Limitations and Suppositions

When I wrote my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else,
I expected some resistance such as:

Dreams are crazy nonsense.

Response: Wrong.  Dreams are meaningful expressions of people’s most important concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life.  Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t paid attention to the last half-century of dream research.  For scientific evidence in favor of the “continuity hypothesis” see www.dreamresearch.net

Dream interpretation is Freudian foolishness.

Response: I’m using methods very different from Freudian psychoanalysis.  I start with broad, easily observable patterns in large collections of dreams, and then focus on particular dreams that can further illuminate those patterns.

The author is a leftwing nut job.

Response: True, I live near Berkeley, California.  I have a pony-tail and an androgynous name, and I’m a strong Obama supporter.  So what?  My book still provides a “fair and balanced” account of the political psychology of liberals and conservatives, highlighting the character virtues and weaknesses of each perspective, using methods that anyone can try for themselves.  Take a look at the brief biographies of the 10 members of the “dreamers focus group” and you’ll see the political diversity of the dream material presented in the book.

Limitations to my findings

Limits to the sleep and dream poll:

My friends in the social sciences have pointed out the many uncertainties that bedevil the use of simple statistics like these in arguing for broad psychological theories.  I share their concerns, which were well expressed by de Tocqueville: “When statistical method is not based upon rigorously accurate calculations, it leads to error rather than to guidance.  The mind easily allows itself to be deluded by the deceptive appearance of precision which statistics retain even when wrong and it relies confidently upon mistakes apparently clothed in the forms of mathematical truth” (Democracy in America, 255).  I fully recognize the limits of these data, but I’ll stand by the rigor and accuracy of my calculations regarding the sleep and dream patterns of contemporary Americans until other researchers come up with something better.

Limits to the dreamers focus group:

Without question, the lives of ten people can never be a perfect mirror of a nation of three hundred million.  Any research project that’s based on data from journals, interviews, and surveys runs the danger of over-generalization.  Although I tried to cast as wide a recruiting net as possible, these ten dream-journaling volunteers included no Hispanics or African-Americans, no one from the Midwest or deep South, no high-income professionals, no evangelical Christians, no Jews or Muslims.  Any claims made in this book must be qualified by those limitations.  Still, these ten particular people’s lives embody so many of the challenges facing the country today that it’s fair to view them as representing other Americans with similar experiences and convictions.  We can’t learn everything from this group, but we can learn a lot.

American Dreamers: Defining “Conservative” and “Liberal”

Defining “conservative” and “liberal”

This is how I define the two terms in my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else:

In their common usage as adjectives the words “conservative” and “liberal” carry meanings that are more or less opposed to each other.  To be conservative means to safeguard something of value, to protect it for the future, to preserve its integrity against dangerous change.  To be liberal means to act with generosity, tolerance, and openness towards others.  Both terms come from Latin roots: servare, “to watch, keep safe,” and conservare, “to keep, preserve”; liber, “free,” and liberalis, “pertaining to a free man” (i.e., not a slave).

The two words are used in non-political situations every day (e.g., “a conservative estimate,” “a liberal serving”), and there’s no big mystery about their meanings.  The difficulty comes in trying to fathom the alchemical processes by which their political connotations have shifted and morphed over time.  At first sight, the political application of the terms would seem clear.  Conservatives are cautious defenders of the status quo and liberals are free-thinking agents of progress.  Conservatism as a political ideology is usually associated with Edmund Burke’s anxious writings in the late 1700’s about the French Revolution and its violent attempt to create a new and better form of society.  From Burke onward, conservatives have been people who question the wisdom of grandiose plans for social engineering and who prefer to maintain the traditional, trustworthy ways of living that have developed gradually through history.

The political ideology of liberalism first emerged in the Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings played a central role in the fight to break free of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on political power in early modern Europe.  Since then, liberals have acted as champions of individual liberty in all spheres of life, envisioning a future of greater happiness and prosperity for everyone, a future that can be achieved by rational thought, cooperative effort, and scientifically-designed technologies.

Liberals, generally speaking, fear the stifling oppression of religious dogma and affirm the natural dignity and power of human reason. Conservatives, meanwhile, worry about radical, uncontrollable change and desire stability and tradition above all else.

That’s how it used to be, anyway.  In twenty-first century American politics the two terms have taken on rather different connotations.  Conservatives today still advocate the classic values of social order, moral discipline, and religious faith.  But most of them are also dedicated to the cause of free market capitalism, an economic system that is relentlessly destabilizing in its impact on communities and individuals (just ask anyone who’s working two jobs or has seen their position moved overseas).  Along with that, American conservatives stand out in their opposition to any real efforts to protect the natural environment—a strange position from an ideology supposedly devoted to preserving the heritage of the past from present and future dangers.  And would anyone who values stability, traditional wisdom, and cautious skepticism towards grandiose plans for change ever have launched the current war in Iraq?  Yet American conservatives did just that, and they continue to be the war’s most passionate advocates.  We’ve come a long way from Edmund Burke.

As for liberals, they remain forceful proponents of greater freedom of expression in American life and more generous care for the poor and underprivileged.  They question the authority of religion in the formulation of public policy, and they push for scientific rationality in solving the problems of society.   But in practice many of their methods have led to an out-of-control rise of state power and governmental interference with people’s lives, limiting individual freedoms in order to favor the interests of one group over another.  We can be sure that Locke and Rousseau would have been astonished at the gargantuan size and dizzying bureaucratic complexity of the American government today.  At a certain point the state apparatus of liberal governance expands to the point where it stops being an agent of change and turns into a self-perpetuating colossus whose inertial mass makes any real change almost impossible.

The upshot is that both terms have flip-flopped in their application to various political issues over the course of American history.  This is one of the many reasons why we must be careful in how we talk about conservatives and liberals in America today.  Ultimately I’m going to argue that everyone’s political attitudes are a mixture of both liberal and conservative ideals, and therefore it’s misleading to separate people into two absolutely distinct types of political personality.

William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1993).  For more on current research in political psychology, see David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis, ed.s, Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and John T. Jost and Jim Sidanius, ed.s, Political Psychology: Key Readings (New York: Psychology Press, 2004).  The International Society for Political Psychology also provides top-quality resources in this field (www.ispp.org)

On Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Chapter 2 of the book of my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is devoted to the impact of the “war on terror” (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) on dreaming.

Three of the focus group members had a direct personal connection to the Iraq war: Dan, who was fighting in it; Sophia, his wife; and Lola, whose nephew had just joined the Army and been deployed to Iraq.  Here are three of their dreams, discussed at more length in chapters 2 and 6.

Dan:“I am an observer or advisor to a small military outpost.  We get attacked by an air assault, planes dropped tons of soldiers all over our camp.  It was men and women in our camp.  I was with a small number of soldiers who escaped, we were walking through the swamp, doing good, when another group of escaping soldiers ran right into us—bringing the enemy on top of us.  We all ran, and I found an empty refrigerator to hide in.  I remember pulling some seal off the door so it wouldn’t seal on me.  I shut the door and waited.  The enemy found me, the guy was mad at me for some reason—I wouldn’t tell him something or I lied—anyway he wanted to cut off my finger.  He asked if I was part of A11 (my company) and I said no.  I noticed a soldier from our camp who was now an advisor or emissary for the enemy.  He stood up for me and saved my finger, and my life.”

Sophia:“Long and horrible….Dreamt Dan was married to both my sister B and myself.  He was taking me to his place of work where we ended up going on a mission.  This work place was under the guise of a normal office with lots of employees, doing normal work—but he was actually a spy or undercover operative doing dangerous missions, but like a contract worker.  At one point I end up with him in a new helicopter vehicle that we have to jump out of.  He has tons of hi-tech vehicles and equipment and acts ambivalent through the whole dream.  I know that B is expecting him to come home later to take her out but the employees cook a huge feast and everyone sits to eat—but I am not invited to sit and I get extremely upset.  It escalates through the dream.  I plead and cry to him to take me home but he won’t.  The dream revolves around me wanting to go home but can’t.”

Lola:“A guy I work (B) with and his wife (V) and I are trying to cross a bridge.  We are on a flat cart with no sides sort of like a carpet ride.  The three of us are zooming very fast on a path.  We go up a big hill of water, down and up and over.  We come to a bridge that is being built.  There are men everywhere with weapons.  We try to reason with them to let us cross.  They take V away.  B and I are locked up in an open cage overlooking the construction of the bridge.  The men are ogling V.  B is getting crazy.  I tell him to keep his cool, that is the only way we are going to escape.  I look out and see a woman in the distance.  She is winking at me and motions for me to look down.  I see a way to escape…We find V and the woman in the distance winks at us to go.  We are back on the cart again on a wild ride.  Up and over we go…We see a big crowd ahead.  It is a stadium and President Bush is there speaking.  We glide right up to him and tell him he must pull the troops out of Iraq, because we have our own war going on right here.  We tell him about the men at the bridges that we just escaped.  He tells us not to worry; he will take care of it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely associated with experiences of war and terrorism.  Recurrent nightmares are one of PTSD’s most common symptoms.  For more on the cause and treatment of PTSD, see the following:

Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, Stanley Krippner

The Spiritual Side of Traumatic Stress Normalization, J. Michael Hakanson

Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope, Kelly Bulkeley