Dan P. McAdams: Republicans Owe Much of Their Success to the Use of the Narrative of Redemption

Roundup: Historians' Take

Dan P. McAdams, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (11-29-04):

[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.]

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 storytellers.

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 pocketbook.

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....

comments powered by Disqus