The American Dream Needs to be Redefined by Both Parties

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It's important to know when to learn from the past, and when to let go of nostalgia.

by Joshua Goldstein

Mark Lilla, in his recent book “The Shipwrecked Mind,” looks at the history of reactionary movements. What these disparate groups have in common, he argues, is despair over present conditions and nostalgia for a time before the perceived catastrophe put an end to traditional society. For some, the catastrophe was the French Revolution, for others the Russian Revolution, or World War 1, etc. And I would add, it may even be Adam and Eve‘s exile from Paradise after the first family’s discovery of sin.

In these nostalgia driven European narratives, the golden age before the catastrophe and its inexorable downward spiral, was a society with a coherent world view and shared values. Harmony reigned. The dream of “Restoration” is what animates the war of the “reactionary” against the “progress” offered by the great enlightenment thinkers and their heirs. In America, such nostalgia for the wholesome grandeur of an idealized past has been largely absent. In fact, the golden age is always imagined to be in the future. As RWB Lewis wrote in The American Adam, “the American myth saw life and history as just beginning. It described the world as starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening old world.”

The Founding Fathers enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a sacred principal and believed that progress towards “a more perfect union” was the glorious destiny of our republic. In the twentieth century, this sentiment was encapsulated in the “American Dream,” a phrase popularized by James Truslow Adams in 1931 who wrote that “life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The “pursuit” had evolved into something like a promise, a decidedly materialistic one. In the post-World War 11 years, achieving the American Dream has been the rhetorical North Star of Republican and Democrat politicians alike. And the clear expectation of all citizens for whom it has a very bread and butter meaning --- “upward mobility” and ever rising living standards from one generation to the next. John Smith Jr. would do better than his father and his son John Smith 111 would do better than him. (Daughters were not part of the original mix.)Of course the parties disagreed on the best way to achieve the dream (through more government programs or lower taxes, etc.) but rarely doubted the promise of the American future over its past in their rhetoric or party platforms. And the Dream really did come true for a couple of generation of white Americans after World War 11. Increasing prosperity for the next generation was real enough and in line with voter expectation. But in the last couple of decades, the dream has begun to seriously fray.

Robert Gordon has argued that the rapid growth of the years 1945-1975 were a nonpareil historical anomaly due to a set of unique technology innovations that created historic productivity gains , the likes of which we are not going to see in the future. Whether or not this explanation is correct, going sideways or backwards has become the norm for many 21 st century Americans. John Jr. is no longer doing better income wise than his father. And god help John Jr’s son. The dream has become a nightmare. Permanent upward mobility, as promised by the American Dream, has been derailed by decades of economic stagnation, if not outright decline. If you are born “working class”, your children are pretty much destined to be “working class” too—and poorer to boot. And this is far from anecdotal. The World Economic Forum recently published its inclusive development index that measures inequality in a number of countries. It reveals that US ranks 23 out of 30 developed nations when looking at indicators like income, health and poverty, as The Atlantic reported in its Jan. 16, 2017 issue.

The reason for slow growth is probably largely “structural” and out of the control of both Democrats and Republicans. But the parties are responsible for not educating voters to this new slow growth reality and redefining the American Dream accordingly, to make the lowering living standards understandable, if not bearable. (The new version of the dream could include such realistic goals as greater longevity from one generation to the next, and more vacation time for all Americans ) On the contrary, as they continue to spout out an of date definition of the American Dream, the politicians seem completely out of touch with reality, which only increases the cynicism and anger of the electorate.

Many citizens see the best years of the Republic not in the future but in the rear view mirror—a golden age when on one salary the family could buy a nice home and a new car every three years. With the presidency of the populist Donald Trump, the great American Reaction may have set in. For Trump, the catastrophe that precipitated America’s downturn is variously NAFTA, China, or the terrorists disguised as refugees threatening our safety and taking away jobs. He promises a restoration of the time before the dark days -when the American dream was triumphant and eternal –at least for white Americans. His rhetoric is fundamentally at odds with American Dream rhetoric of both Democrats and Republicans. He confirmed the accuracy of the voters’ nostalgia for an America past that was far better than the present. And spoke to their sense of outrage and betrayal. Without the America First movement that only he can lead, the American Dream of rising incomes will never be revived. And the future of the US is a dystopian nightmare. This reactionary message has found millions of followers and its success can be blamed on the failure of both parties to level with the people.

While certainly, the post WWII period was an anomaly due in large part to the fact that the U.S. had a huge advantage over other industrialized nations, most of which had been damaged by the war, I'm not convinced that stagnation is necessarily the future. In particular, I see government control of education as one of the leading obstacles to social mobility, along with the substantial growth of the regulatory state in recent decades. Thus this article relies on empirical propositions that not all of us find compelling.

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