Of all the cruel and painful realities that average Americans grapple with daily and still refuse to accept, none perhaps has been more damaging and heartbreaking to their hopes as the pursuit of that illusive and still impossible to reach American dream.
You here about it in songs like, “Only in America,” the classic Jay & the Americans ‘60s hit. It’s sung about in the immortal musical “West Side Story.” It’s as old as the Republic itself, and, even after all the evidence to the contrary, it remains an indelible force in our culture, right up there with mom and apple pie and no place like home.
The American dream – the belief that you can be anything you want and the sky’s the limit – has been both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to the nation. On the one hand, it has provided us with a plethora of individual accomplishments from men and women, in all walks of life, who dared to think big and who reached the pinnacle of success in their respective fields; on the other it has shamelessly saddled countless millions with a bankrupt belief system that often chews up and spits out its victims. For the vast majority of these lost souls the pursuit of the American dream cost them everything they had. In the end they had been duped into believing in the ultimate con job: that they too could ascend to the top of Mount Olympus. As the old saying goes, to the victor go the spoils, and to every one else, the scraps.
In the fictional TV series The West Wing, President Jed Bartlett is talking to his Chief of Staff about the upcoming election. His opponent has branded him as someone who is looking to kill the entrepreneur spirit of America by over taxing it. “That’s the problem with the American dream,” Bartlett says. “It makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.”
Ah, to be rich. That is the ultimate American dream that for so many people has turned into a nightmare. For the sad truth is that the American dream has been born on the backs of those who toiled in relative obscurity and poverty. Without their almost martyr-like sacrifice, most of our history would be considerably different. And while a few drank from the waters of prosperity, the vast majority struggled to keep their heads above water. This is not some Marxian Utopian theory run amuck; it is a sad reminder of just how powerful and pervasive some myths can get.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wealth became so concentrated in this country that it took government intersession to finally break the hold the moneyed interests had and bring about at least a semblance of income redistribution within the economy. And while it finally took the Great Depression of the 1930s to put a dent in that dream and bring about the reforms and social programs needed for a thriving middle class, it wasn’t until after the second World War that real change began to seep into the fabric of American society.
The prosperity of the 1950s – even if it was owed in large part to a Europe and Asia that had been bombed back into the middle ages in World War II – and the Great Society of the 1960s proved that a thriving middle class could coexist alongside the elites. Wealth did not flee the country, as expected; in deed with a burgeoning middle class, and even with what would now be considered onerous income tax brackets for the top percentile, the upper class actually enjoyed a measure of prosperity unheard of any where else in the world. While they did not keep most of their income – in deed the top tax bracket peaked in 1963 at 91% - the irony was that they earned more money than at any time since the turn of the century. Keynesian economics had triumphed. The revolution had been fought and won. But success was short lived.
The economic malaise of the 1970s is perhaps the most misunderstood era of our history. There were many factors involved. One was due to the inevitable sag that occurs when a country shifts from a war economy to a more consumer-based one. There had been a similar downturn between 1946 through 1948 after the War. But this was far worse. Vietnam bled the nation, and not just in the number of soldiers killed or wounded. It was the first war America had fought and lost. The humiliation of that defeat devastated the nation. The energy crisis that gripped many sectors of the economy throughout the latter part of the decade led to sky-rocketing oil and gas prices that drove up the costs of just about everything associated with it. Massive inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis led to a growing unrest and frustration within the electorate. Between the political scandals of Nixon and the seeming incompetence of Carter, America turned to that which it had always felt most comfortable with: its past.
The 1980s saw a return of the American dream mythos with a vengeance. Huge tax breaks for the rich – disguised as incentives to get a sluggish economy jump-started – led to massive deficits in the budget and a redistribution of wealth upward. The gap between the poor and the rich, which had narrowed over the last thirty years, began to widen again. Cowboy capitalism had ridden into town on a white horse. Ronald Reagan became the new folk hero for the power elite. He sold America on the one thing that had always been drummed into its collective conscience since its early days: that you were what you made of yourself; that there were no limits to what you could achieve; that the only thing standing in your way was your own fear, ineptitude, and, of course, the government.
Ah, yes, the government. The antichrist. When Reagan said that government wasn’t the solution to our problems, it WAS the problem, he was ostensibly declaring war on the Great Society of Kennedy and Johnson. Within a few short years, most of the gains that labor and the middle class had made in the ‘50s and ‘60s were virtually wiped out in a sea of deregulation and new tax “incentives.” What FDR had begun in the ‘30s, Regan vowed to end in the ‘80s.
But while Reagan failed to undo all the reforms and improvements during his eight years in office, the damage he had done was considerable, and, sadly, irreversible. Both George H.W. Bush, and even Bill Clinton continued to oversee the redistribution of wealth upward. The gap between the rich and poor grew, though thanks in some small part to Clinton raising the top tax rate from 28% to 39.6%, it at least didn’t grow as fast as it had it the ‘80s.
Then came the finally indignity. George W. Bush was elected in 2000 and within a year brought down the top tax rate to 35%. The tax cuts, again widely heralded by the Right as being stimulative to the economy, proved to be nothing more than red herrings. What was once a $400 billion surplus quickly evaporated and grew to a record deficit. The claim that tax cuts spur business investment, hence more receipts into the treasury, was only a half-truth. While receipts did go up, the tax breaks themselves were never fully recouped. It would be like a business spending a dollar to get back 80 cents.
But more importantly, as in the ‘80s, the gap between the rich and poor widened still. The middle class was again literally being torn apart. To add insult to injury, Bush, like Reagan, began stripping away many of the safety net programs that had been in place. De-regulation of the banking industry, and an over-reliance on a false belief that the market was rational and could regulate itself – a long-held belief by many conservative, supply-side economists – finally came home to roost in 2008 when the housing bubble burst.
Now to be fair the seeds of this disaster were sowed by the Clinton Administration, which oversaw the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, one of the core tenants of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but the Bush Administration did nothing to thwart a catastrophe despite the warning signs that trouble was brewing on the horizon. Like most “believers” the administration’s stance was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. And, as is typical, the ensuing shipwreck brought America to its knees once again, and allowed for some honest reflection of who we were as a nation and how our beliefs had helped shaped our predicament.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was touted by most of us not as a victory for progressive values and causes, but as a referendum on conservatism. We welcomed him, but were cautiously optimistic as to what difference he could make in a country so steeped in a bankrupt folklore. We soon found out that far from being a transformative figure, he was an overly pragmatic, consensus-seeking politician, who too often compromised on core principles to achieve legislative victories, and who often got schooled by his political foes, much to the consternation of his base.
As for the electorate, sure it was angry, and that translated to huge political gains for Democrats, but the new Administration misread the cause of the angst. However disgusted the nation might’ve been with its past leaders’ conduct, it wasn’t quite ready to jettison its storied, if failed, past. Romanticism, no matter how skewed, is still an attractive and powerful aphrodisiac, and it is a hard habit to break.
To make matters worse, the Obama Administration badly underestimated the depths of the recession. Its stimulus bill, while stabilizing the economy and quite possibly keeping it from going over the cliff, was nonetheless insufficient in jumpstarting it. Unemployment continued to grow, and while GDP did grow slightly, it was not enough to offset job losses in the private sector. The opposition had a field day. Between the healthcare reform bill – which brought shouts of death panels at Astroturf town hall meetings last August – and the bank and GM bailouts – which brought charges of socialism – the public’s opinion of the Administration and Democrats in general began to turn decidedly ugly.
Slowly but surely the architects of the financial disaster began a campaign to retake control of the very ship they had driven into the iceberg. Between the incompetence of the Party in charge and the naiveté of a nation that had a short attention span and an even shorter fuse, the old narrative began to resurface again anew. It wasn’t the markets that were irrational and irresponsible that led to the greatest economic downturn in over seven decades; it was the government getting in the way that was the route of all our problems. The ghost of Reagan once more filled the ether; this time in the guise of the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin.
Conservative talk radio and Fox News helped stoke the fires of discontent to such heights that an entire nation that only months ago had welcomed with open arms the arrival of its first black president, was now ready to throw him and his entire party out of office. Somehow it was Obama’s recession, even though virtually every economist conceded it began under Bush; and despite the fact that the healthcare law had no public option – not to mention no single payer, which was what progressives wanted – it was somehow a government takeover of the health insurance industry. Facts were deliberately twisted and race baiting was employed by xenophobes intent on riling up pent up resentment within white America, which saw its influence as being threatened by an ever-increasing multiculturalism. “We want our country back” was code for a return to a simpler time when father knew best and certain people knew their place.
And the irony of all ironies is that the middle class – the class which is being manipulated and exploited by the far Right and Fox News – is the one most likely to suffer should Republicans retake the reigns of government. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire this year, and there is political pressure not only to extend them, but to make them permanent. Should that happen the gulf between rich and poor will split wide open and our children and grandchildren will be saddled with a deficit they will never be able to dig themselves out of.
We could be looking at the last generation of middle class that has any political influence left to wield. The Tea Party candidates, despite their rhetoric, are pandering to the sort of special interests that feed on fear and power grabs. Like most of the country, they too are being used as pawns for a greater purpose.
At stake is the future of the Republic. It is rare in deed that I find myself agreeing with anything Sean Hannity says, but when he recently stated on his program that the 2010 mid-terms “are the most important election in over a generation,” I couldn’t agree more. This election IS the most important election in over a generation.
The lyrics of that famous song from Man of La Mancha continue to call out to us.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
Some myths die a slow, painful death, and some linger with us forever. The great American dream is one of those myths we may never rid ourselves of. Like an abscess tooth, it will continue to throb and beckon for us to pull it. But then, just as fast as it erupted, it will subside, along with the swelling, and we will forgive and forget; until next time, that is. And make no mistake about it; there will always be a next time. Just ask any dentist.