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Heroes, Villains, and Minions: The Public Characters of US Politics

In a society where reputation is everything, the qualities we assign to political figures all but shape political and even social outcomes.

In Public Characters: The Politics of Reputation and Blame, The Graduate Center Professor James Jasper explains just how the way we characterize people and cast them in our political world defines our country in several ways.

“The world’s a complicated place. Characters are part of that complicated world, but we need to use them in the right way when we use them as symbols,” Jasper says.

“Donald Trump is a master of simplified tweets that demonize people. A better way to do character work is to find people who really do represent your moral point of view and enrich our understanding rather than diminishing and oversimplifying the world.”

Jasper defines “character work” as an effort to portray a person, organization, nation, etc. in terms of their strength, weakness, or morality. According to Jasper, this work largely relies on understanding a specific human entity as a hero or villain. 

It’s this character work that, Jasper says, secured Trump’s presidency — he was “able to sum up opponents in a pithy epithet that made them appear weak or immoral,” Jasper writes.

With that, the ways we characterize public figures can be beneficial or harmful.

“Public characters — the tropes and reputations created by character work — are powerful because they tell us what emotions we are supposed to feel: admiration for heroes, pity for victims, fear and loathing of villains, ridicule and contempt for minions,” Jasper and his co-authors write.

For the book, Jasper enlisted the help of Michael Young, a historian who studies past social movements, and Elke Zuern, a political scientist whose research centers on southern Africa. 

Together, the trio explains the ways in which this “character work” influences how we see and engage with various groups, like immigrants, women, and Black people,  whom we believe to be victims in the country, and how politicians portray themselves and their opponents. 

“Any oppressed group has character issues. They have to fight stigma that’s part of their marginalization,” Jasper says. “They do it through establishing themselves as heroes. It’s really when movements disrupt things that they get results.”

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Public Characters: The Politics of Reputation and Blame
Oxford University Press, 2020

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James Jasper (Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1

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The Graduate Center