At the conclusion of a recent New Yorker story about her new website posting people's dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti said, "I sort of hope that the campaign managers will change the way candidates give speeches as a result of people's dream lives. It must be telling them something."
These dreams do have the potential to reveal meaningful facets of people's political beliefs. The frequency and intensity of a politician's appearance in people's dreams can be taken as an accurate index of his or her personal charisma. The more people dream of a politician, the more likely that politician has made a deep emotional impact on them (both positively and negatively--Heti's website has instances of both).
In 1992, when I first studied dreams of politicians during that year's Presidential election, I heard numerous dreams of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and almost none of George H.W. Bush--no doubt where the charisma lay in that contest! As of March 18th, Heti's website contains 73 dreams of Obama, 67 of Hillary, and four of John McCain (to be fair, the space for McCain dreams was just created on March 10th). Now, as then, the dreams offer a mix of the bizarre and the trivial, the profound and the absurd, the personally idiosyncratic and the socially relevant. From a research perspective, the value of Heti's website is that it provides further evidence that people dream not only about their private lives but also about public affairs like political contests. Dreaming is not purely inward-looking; it also has the capacity to look outwards and express our feelings about the major concerns, conflicts, and challenges of our communities.
It should be noted that these kinds of anecdotal reports are limited in many ways. The website offers almost no other information about the dreamer beyond the dream itself. There are no additional associations from the dreamer about what the dream might mean to him or her, and no waking life context or background details. The reports come from people in many different countries, and of course we can never be sure they aren’t just making up their dreams entirely (perhaps to put their favored candidate in a better light, or to cast aspersions on the candidate they want to lose).
With those caveats in mind, it can still be fun and potentially illuminating to ponder individual dreams like these:
"I was at a sweet country inn, the type of bed and breakfast that you would escape to for a romantic weekend. It could have been in upstate New York, or maybe New Hampshire. The inn was right next to a lake. A woman came down the stairs in a red bathing suit. She was magnetic, and everyone was staring at her. She carried herself so well in that bathing suit, even though her figure was not that of a supermodel. I admired her as well, and realized that I was having a little girl crush on Hillary, the lady in the bathing suit. However, I told my friends at the inn that I wasn't going to vote for the dazzling senator.
"My friends were aghast. You mean, they said, that you won't vote for your own Mother!"
"I was in a smoky, hazy hotel office/suite with Barack Obama. We had driven back together from a big rally and speech. He walked ahead of me and was dismissive, or maybe just distracted. I wasn't sure whether he'd already won the presidency or was still just a candidate. I was acting as one of his assistants.
"I'd been respectfully carrying his coat and now I lay it on the bed. When I tried to engage him in some light banter about how he felt about the rally, he seemed distracted and annoyed. I was struck that in private, behind closed doors, he was a different man: cordial enough, certainly not mean-spirited, but his tone in private was nothing like his public persona.
"He reached for a pack of cigarettes, though the room was already smoky enough."
The best way to interpret these kinds of reports is to 1) keep it light (they're dreams, after all!), 2) be careful not to read too much into them, and 2) use some of the basic methods of content analysis to highlight possible patterns of meaning. I'm experimenting with different methods of analysis to study these dreams, and I'll share my findings on this website over the next few weeks.
Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, author of American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union and a faculty member in the dream studies program at John F. Kennedy University. A former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, his other books include Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions, Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming; Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope; and The Wondering Brain: Thinking about Religion with and beyond Cognitive Neuroscience.