Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election

Concluding Reflections

So to return to the first of those two questions that initially motivated my study, what do these dreams mean?  My strong impression is that the dreams express these people’s feelings about their political world.   One of the basic functions of dreaming is to help us make sense of things that are confusing, strange, or frightening[iv].  In the fall of 1992, many people felt that the political state of the U.S. was confusing, strange, and frightening.  It thus should not surprise us that people’s dreams would express their concerns and hopes about the Presidential Election.

My other strong impression is that the dreams are not simply using political images to “symbolize” personal meanings.  A Freudian interpreter might argue that a “manifest” dream about Bill Clinton is only masking a “latent” content having to do with the dreamer’s relationship with his or her father.  Similarly, a Jungian interpreter might claim that a nightmare of Ross Perot is only symbolically expressing the dreamer’s unconscious fears of the “Ross Perot-like” parts of him or herself.  I am emphatically opposed to such reductionistic, one-dimensional views.  The dreams I gathered certainly related to the dreamer’s personal lives, to their inner worlds–but they just as certainly related to the dreamer’s political lives, to the outer world.  A dream of Bill Clinton probably does say something about how one feels about one’s father; but it probably also says something about how one feels about Bill Clinton.  If there’s anything we know about dreams, it’s that they always have many dimensions of meaning.  Dreams never mean just one thing.

But why, turning to my second question, have so many dream researchers ignored, downplayed, or entirely denied the possibility that some dreams have a political dimension of meaning?  I imagine Calvin Hall might defend himself by saying people don’t dream about politics very much because politics aren’t as emotionally important to them as are more personal subjects like relationships, health, and sex.  Thus, he might argue, his claim that we do not dream about political affairs like Presidential elections is simply a description of the facts[v].

It does seem that politics are not very important to people in American society[vi].  Indeed, sociologists like Robert Bellah have argued that a serious problem in American society is the ever-worsening split between the public realm of political affairs and the private realm of personal affairs[vii].  Our society’s political system has become so complex and impersonal that many people feel alienated from it; more and more people see no point in actively participating in a system that is controlled by businessmen, lawyers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats.  As a result many people are simply giving up on the public world of politics, and seeking fulfillment in purely private, individual affairs like shopping and watching television.  The problem, of course, is that the wider this public/private split becomes and the more alienated people feel from politics, the easier it is for the wealthy and powerful to keep their control of our political system.

So it is accurate to say that Americans do not dream much about politics because we do not care much about politics.  But it is not accurate to say, as Hall does, that dreams never relate to politics and that dreams cannot relate to politics.  On the contrary, the “facts” are that at certain times our dreams do relate, clearly and directly, to the political affairs of our community[viii].  Indeed, if Bellah and other sociologists are right about the dangerous public/private division in American society, we in the dream studies field must be very, very careful not to make that division worse.  By suggesting that dreams are only about the personal life concerns of the dreamer, and by quickly interpreting away political images in dreams as nothing more than “symbols” of those personal concerns, dream researchers may be contributing to the dangerous separation of public from private life in American society.  Instead of merely “describing the facts”, we may actually be creating them.

I will close by describing some of the constructive applications of a more careful and sophisticated study of dreams and politics.  One clear implication is that dreams can be a powerful source of political self-awareness.  Dreams provide insight into our deeper-lying feelings about politics and reveal to us the interplay of personal and political issues in our lives.  Sheri’s dream of the politician/husband who might or might not serve his whole term is a perfect example of this.  The issue of fidelity, of keeping one’s promises, is very important both in Sheri’s personal life and in the broader political world; her dream brings this connection to Sheri’s awareness, offering her an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between her feelings about personal fidelity and political fidelity.  Patty’s dream of watching the owls with Clinton is also an excellent example.  For her, it is the issue of change that connects her personal life and the political world.  Patty’s dream brings forth the interplay of her uncertain feelings about changing jobs and about Bill Clinton’s call for political change.  The dream enables her to explore the relationship between her reactions towards change in the personal and the political realms.

Another implication is that dreams could help people defend themselves against the insidious effects of negative political advertisements.  It’s one of the most distressing features of contemporary American politics that voters are so deeply influenced by ads that unfairly and dishonestly slander opposing candidates.  When pollsters ask voters what they think about such “attack ads”, people generally claim these ads have no effect on them; but when election time comes, the winning candidate is all too frequently the one who has done the best job of persuading voters to fear and distrust the other candidate.  The effectiveness of negative ads, then, seems to lie in their ability to manipulate unconscious fears: consciously, people ignore these ads; but unconsciously, the ads evidently succeed in stirring up people’s fears, and influencing their votes.  Perhaps voters could better resist the devious appeal of negative political ads if they devoted greater attention to their dreams.  If we look to our dreams with an eye for their political relevance (in addition to their psychological relevance), we can develop a better understanding of the intimate relationship between the personal and the political realms of our lives.  With that increased understanding to guide us, we may be better able to recognize how political advertisements often seek to stimulate our unconscious fears as a means of influencing our political beliefs, and our votes.

There has never been any rigorous, focused research on dreams and politics, and my study of the 1992 U.S. Presidential election is nothing more than a preliminary exploration of the issues and questions that future research might consider in more detail[ix].  But I feel strongly that we can learn a great deal from giving more attention to this subject.  It promises to expand our understanding of dreams into new areas that many dream researchers have denied even exist.  It also promises to give us insights into how Western society might overcome one of its more troubling problems–for dreams show us that the sharp division of our lives into public and private realms is nothing but an artificial separation of aspects of experience that are in fact deeply connected to each other.


Bellah, Robert, Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler,    Ann, and Tipton, Steven M.  (1985).  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beradt, Charlotte.  (1966).  The Third Reich of Dreams.  Trans. Adriane Gottwald.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Bulkeley, Kelly.  (1994).  The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meanings of Dreams in Modern Western Culture.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Hall, Calvin.  (1966).  The Meaning of Dreams.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jung, Carl G.  (1965).  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  Trans. Richard and Clara Winston.  New York: Vintage.

Moffitt, Alan, Kramer, Milton, and Hoffmann, Robert (eds.).  (1993).  The Functions of Dreaming.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Schorske, Carl E.  (1987).  “Politics and Patricide in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams“.  In Harold Bloom (ed.), Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams: Modern Critical Interpretations.  New York: Chelsea House.

Tedlock, Barbara (ed.).  (1987).  Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E., and Callois, Roger (eds.).  (1966).  The Dream and Human Societies.  Berkeley: University of California Press.


[i]. See my essay, “Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams“, Dreaming (in press).

[ii]. See Tedlock (1987) and Von Grunebaum and Callois (1966).

[iii]. The names of the dreamers and some of the details of the dreams have been changed to insure the anonymity of the dreamers.

[iv]. See Moffitt, Kramer, and Hoffmann (1993).

[v]. I’m always suspicious of simple “descriptions of the facts”.  They have a funny way of masking the facts rather than revealing them.  Hall frequently characterizes his content analysis method of dream research as a purely “objective” means of describing dreams and dreaming.  I have challenged Hall on this point in much more detail in section 3 of The Wilderness of Dreams.

[vi]. Even in the exhaustingly long campaign of 1992, barely 50% of the country’s total registered voters cast ballots–and huge numbers of eligible voters never even bothered to register.

[vii]. Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).  Bellah says, “The most distinctive aspect of twentieth-century American society is the division of life into a number of separate functional sectors: home and workplace, work and leisure, white collar and blue collar, public and private…’Public’ and ‘private’ roles often contrast sharply, as symbolized by the daily commute from green suburban settings reminiscent of rural life to the industrial, technological ambience of the workplace.  The split between public and private life correlates with a split between utilitarian individualism, appropriate in the economic and occupational spheres, and expressive individualism, appropriate in private life…Viewing one’s primary task as ‘finding oneself’ in autonomous self-reliance, separating oneself not only from one’s parents but also from those larger communities and traditions that constitute one’s past, leads to the notion that it is in oneself, perhaps in relation to a few intimate others, that fulfillment is to be found.  Individualism of this sort often implies a negative view of public life.  The impersonal forces of the economic and political worlds are what the individual needs protection against.  In this perspective, even occupation, which has been so central to the identity of Americans in the past, becomes instrumental–not a good in itself, but only a means to the attainment of a rich and satisfying private life.” (43, 45, 163)

[viii]. I discuss the question of how to interpret and understand the political relevance of dreams in more detail in section 3 of The Wilderness of Dreams.

[ix]. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s Inauguration in January of 1993, Bruce and Julia Miller began collecting “Dreams of Bill” from all over the country–asking people through newspaper ads, television and radio talk-shows, etc., if they had experienced any dreams of President Clinton.  The Millers have received a huge response, and are working on a book documenting their findings.  Although theirs will not be a “scientific” study either, their work strongly supports my claim that there is something here to study.

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