In Dreams Begin Politics

Originally published by the History News Network on September 8, 2008.

In The Epic of America (1931), the historian James Truslow Adams argued what many Americans have felt all along, that “there has been the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

The campaign season, a prolonged divination of suppressed wishes, is prime-time for the rhetoric of the American Dream. But rhetoric is not the same as propaganda, and dreaming is more than a metaphor.Do politicians use their actual dreams as sources of innovation?What might their beliefs about dreaming imply about their style of decision-making? “She doesn’t always know what to make of me,” Barack Obama writes of his wife Michelle in Dreams from My Father. “She worries that, like Gramps and the Old Man, I am something of a dreamer.” The autobiography mentions dreams on 38 occasions (once every 12 pages). It recounts Obama’s own dreams as well as those of his friends and family, returning again and again to dreaming as a source of personal power and transcendence.

Raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, educated in Muslim and Catholic schools, Obama early on grew aware of the world of signs and symbols. References to evil spirits, exorcisms, demons, specters, totems, ghosts, and spells lie casually about the autobiography, which attests to his fascination with shrunken heads and “night runners” of Keynan legend. The Republicans, in their restless nativism, have begun to use this part of Obama’s biography to paint him as a foreigner. In truth, his sensitivity to unconscious and invisible forces makes him a fitting heir to a political unconscious that lies in the very bosom of the American past.

Cotton Mather is best remembered for The Wonders of the Invisible World and its argument for “Spectral Evidence” in the Salem witch trials. But his masterpiece was the Magnalia Christi Americana, or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England From Its First Planting, in the Year 1620, Unto the Year of Our Lord 1698, the title indicating the mix of credulity and pedantry, the long passages of Greek that sat alongside reports of giant cows and visions of ships floating in the air. The most interesting of the Magnalia’s seven books consisted of biographies of the New England oligarchy, to whom Mather attributed a lively dream-life. He told how the early church fathers had asked his grandfather, John Cotton, to nominate a successor. Cotton was nearing death. One night a “fever dream” put into his mind the image of “Mr. Norton of Ipswich” riding into Boston on white horse. The next morning Mr. Cotton nominated Mr. Norton indeed.

Mather’s political equivalent in Virginia, William Byrd of Westover, recorded in his diary snatches of an enchanted world that belied his poise as prosperous statesman, scholar of science, and member of the political elite. One night in December 1710, Byrd dreamed of a flaming sword shooting across the sky. About a week later he was returning home from a walk with his wife. As they approached they saw the sword hanging in a cloud-bank over his house. “Both these appearances seemed to foretell some misfortune to me which afterwards came to pass in the death of several of my negroes after a very unusual manner,” Byrd worried to his diary, adding this: “My wife about two months since dreamed she saw an angel in the shape of a big woman who told her that time was altered and the seasons were changed and that several calamities would follow that confusion. God avert his judgment from this poor country.”

Leading thinkers of the revolutionary generation understood that putting the political affairs of the nation on a more rational basis entailed an attack on their metaphysics of dreaming. Benjamin Rush moved toward a scientific explanation in Medical Inquiries (1812), though his letters bared the ambivalence that dogged such moves. Writing to John Adams about a dream he had, in which Adams and Thomas Jefferson ended their long estrangement, Rush brought about the reconciliation in fact.

A more potent attack came from Tom Paine, who published “Dream” in 1795 and later incorporated it into Part II of The Age of Reason. The stories of Ezekiel and Daniel, Paine pointed out, were narratives of captivity told from the point of view of prisoners of war. “They pretended to have dreamed dreams and seen visions, because it was unsafe for them to speak facts or plain language.” To insist that God used dreams as a method of revelation was to abridge freedom of conscience, and freedom of conscience was a primary condition of freely fought politics.

The rise of America to a modern power-state elicited numberless comparisons to Rome without generating any literary equivalent to Lives of the Caesars, by the Roman biographer and dream-teller Suetonius. Caesar’s last dream (according to Suetonius) sent him tumbling helplessly through space, soaring into the mouth of an abyss until, for one precious moment, he managed to touch the tip of Jupiter’s finger. Lincoln’s dreams were morbid by comparison. In his second term, the president suffered a nightmare at the start of which he became aware of the sound of weeping. He climbed out of his bed (in his dream) and went downstairs to the East Room. There he encountered a group of soldiers guarding a corpse. “Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream.”

Nor would Suetonius have overlooked Madame Marcia in her Dupont Circle parlor in the 1910s and 1920s. Marcia bought the latest editions of Congressional Directory, which she mined for astrologically important birth dates, though her best clients were the First Ladies. The most powerful women of the era, Edith Wilson and Florence Harding, each invited Marcia into the White House for secret horoscopic readings. Harding was an occultist whose belief in clairvoyance outdid even the fawning credulity in which Nancy Reagan beheld Joan Quigley. Mrs. Reagan, who has never asked forgiveness for the ceding power to Ms. Quigley on the nation’s behalf, has said in extenuation that the Hollywood dream-factory from which she and her husband came to politics was riddled by superstition. Just so.

“Was it all just a dream?” Michael Moore asks at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11. The chronic inflation in the public register, the anxiety of unreality, are constant companions in the political affairs of empire. Obama, who says he admires Reagan’s ability to project transcendence, offers the same style of democratic glamour, abolishes the same differences between psychology and politics, celebrity and power. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, his second book, sidesteps the role of party standard-bearer in favor of dream-interpreter-in-chief. Here is the leader of and for our age, at once inhabiting the collective psyche and lending his personal vision to the spiritual quality of its longings.

It’s a great story—a real Fairy Tale.