By Dan P. McAdams
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? Bush’s momentous decision resulted from a perfect psychological storm, wherein world events came to activate a set of dispositional traits and family goals that had long occupied key positions in Bush’s personality. At the center of the storm was a singularly redemptive story that, around the age of 40, George W. Bush began to construct to make sense of his life. After years of drinking and waywardness, Bush fashioned a story in his mind about how, though self-discipline and God’s guidance, he had triumphed over chaos, enabling him to recover the freedom, control, 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. Just as he had, with God’s help, overcome the internal demons that once threatened to destroy his own life, so too would America, God’s chosen nation, overcome the chaos and evil of Saddam and thereby restore freedom and the good life to the Iraqis. Because the redemptive 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.
I have been thinking a lot about George W. Bush’s redemptive story these days as I follow the U. S. midterm elections. The big political story for the past few months, of course, has been the Republican surge and the rise of the Tea Party. One of the strategies of embattled Democratic candidates has been to frame the election as a contest between them and Bush. After all, the Democrats decisively beat the Bush legacy in 2008, and they would love to fight that fight again. But I wonder if they have picked the right enemy.
Like such Tea Party darlings as Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, George W. Bush was a died-in-the-wool conservative. Throughout his political career, he pushed for lower taxes, less government regulation, strong defense, and other favorites of the political right. Like Glenn Beck and many other social conservatives, furthermore, he was emotionally in tune with an evangelical Christian perspective on human life and social relationships. At a Tea Party rally in Anchorage, Alaska, Mr. Beck recently confessed: “If it weren’t for my wife and my faith, I don’t know if I would be alive today.” As governor and president, George W. Bush often expressed the very same sentiment.
But Bush was really different, too. In tone and sentiment, George W. Bush was less like the angry Republicans who are fighting to take over the House and Senate on November 2 and more like, well, President Obama. Both Bush and Obama embrace an unabashedly redemptive narrative about life and about America. Bush’s life story channels the well-known American story of second chances and personal recovery. Obama tells the quintessentially American tale of upward mobility and liberation, the black boy who grew up to defy all the odds and become president. In both narratives, the protagonist overcomes early suffering to reach the Promised Land in the end. Both men project the theme of redemption onto America, though in different ways. Bush wanted to restore small-town American goodness and spread democracy to the Iraqis. Obama wants to catalyze human potential and improve Americans’ lives through progressive government. Both appeal to the discourse of hope.
And what about the Tea Party? It is difficult to generalize, but most conservative candidates who have won the backing of Tea Party activists in this election season do not seem to be telling a redemptive narrative about American life. Their political rhetoric instead has a harder edge. Let’s take the country back from the evil forces who are controlling us. Let’s get government out of your life. Sarah Palin mocked Obama’s agenda when she famously asked: “How’s that hopey/changey thing workin’ out for ya?” Ironically, President Bush was all about hope, and change.
Republican (and Democratic) candidates for the House and Senate in the midterm races may not need to invoke grand hopes and inspiring national narratives in order to win in this nasty election season. But 2012 will surely be a different story. From Lincoln to Reagan to Obama, successful presidential candidates have typically managed to tell and to personify a grand narrative of American redemption. Unless they want to go down in flames, the Tea Party Republicans will eventually need to find a national leader who, like George W. Bush, can inspire redemptive stories in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Dan P. McAdams is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives. He is the author of George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait.