Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dan P. McAdams' "George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream"

Dan P. McAdams is the Chair of the Psychology Department and Director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, which won the American Psychological Association’s 2006 William James Award for the best general-interest book in Psychology.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait, and reported the following:
In the spring of 2003, President George W. Bush launched an American military invasion of Iraq. From a psychological standpoint, why did he do it? In George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream, I argue that Bush’s momentous decision was the product of a perfect psychological storm – a confluence of world events, personality dispositions and goals, and the president’s peculiarly redemptive story for his own life. After years of drinking and waywardness, Bush fashioned a story in his mind about how, through self-discipline and God’s guidance, he had triumphed over chaos, enabling him to recover the freedom and goodness of his youth. In the days after 9/11, President Bush projected this very same narrative of redemption onto America and the world, motivating and justifying the Iraq invasion.

Here is where we are on page 99: The reader and I have already explored how Bush’s post-9/11 response was shaped by fundamental personality traits of high extraversion and low openness to experience, combined with his lifelong goal to defeat his beloved father’s greatest enemies. But how do we get from these childhood determinants to Bush’s midlife dream of redemption? We do it by imagining what human life was like 50,000 years ago:
We are the ancestors of modern human beings, living together in social tribes as foragers and hunters, migrating across grasslands and forests in search of food, shelter, and safety, forever on the move, on the outlook for opportunities and for dangers. Life is hard.... We are under constant threat. To survive, we must stick with our group. The group is everything.

Everybody is different, although we are all part of the group. Some of us are more adventurous than others, willing to take risks, willing to explore what goes on outside the group or outside the group’s rules.... By contrast, some of us are more prudent than others, tending to rely on the tried-and-true, cautious and vigilant in our dangerous environment... Those among us who hew most closely to the group’s timeless traditions aim first and foremost to keep us safe and secure. They typically urge us to keep things more-or-less the way they have always been, or to restore a golden time we may have lost. More than the rest of us, these especially restrained and cautious members of our group – deferential as they are to established authority – affirm the wisdom of ages past. They are our conservatives.
By suggesting on page 99 that political conservatism is deeply ingrained in group life and human nature, I begin to consider the development of George W. Bush’s characteristic brand of evangelically inspired political conservatism. Conservatives often look back in longing to a golden age. For Bush that golden age was his years growing up in Midland, Texas. Restoring the freedom, control, and self-determination that run through the mystic chords of George W. Bush’s Midland memories becomes the key narrative aim of his redemptive dream. In his personal life, Bush overcame chaos and restored Midland by committing himself to his family and public service, finding God, and giving up alcohol around the age of 40. In Bush’s redemptive dream, America, too, might overcome the chaos of 9/11 and restore, even for the Iraqi people, the freedom and the goodness that, once upon a time, were Midland. Because the story had played so well in his own life, the president knew in his heart that the mission would be accomplished and that there ultimately had to be a happy ending.
Learn more about George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue