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Can Biden Broaden Our American Dream?

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tags: polarization, inequality, Joe Biden, American Dream, National service



Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, a Contributing Editor of HNN, and author of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of his recent books and online publications click here.

Civilian Conservation Corps Tree Planting Project, Angeles National Forest, California, 1939. 

National Forest Service photo F.E. Dunham

 

 

On December 11, President-elect Joe Biden introduced Susan Rice, who has agreed to become his director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She had formerly been Barack Obama's ambassador to the United Nations and then his national security adviser. The remarks she made after being introduced are important for they suggest the absolute necessity of broadening the American Dream. And this dream must broaden if we are going to flourish in the future.

But what is the dream and how must it be broadened? In a Time essay on it in 2012 , Jon Meacham defined it as “the perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children.” In a 1995 book on the dream, Jennifer Hochschild wrote that “the American dream consists of tenets about achieving success,” but she indicated that people measure this success in various ways. In amplifying on this point, she quoted Bruce Springsteen, “I don’t think the American dream was that everybody was going to make . . . a billion dollars, but it was that every body was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect.” Thus, the American Dream means having the opportunity to succeed, however we may define success. And it must be broadened by widening the opportunities for more people to do so and in more ways than just becoming better off financially.  

Germane to these considerations, in her remarks on 11 December, Rice said: “My paternal great grandfather was born a slave in South Carolina and joined the Union Army. My maternal grandparents came to this country from Jamaica with no education. But, working for decades as a janitor and a maid, they saved and scraped to send all five of their children to college—and on to professional success.” But in a 2020 memoir, Tough Love, Rice makes clear that for her ancestors “success” meant more than just becoming wealthier.

Two elements run consistently through my family tree: education and service. For my family, education is of utmost importance, worthy of every sacrifice, because it is the key to upward mobility and to securing the American Dream. . . . The corollary to education—service—was embedded in my genes and seared into my soul. My forebears on both sides heeded the call to serve, to pay back far more than they were grateful to receive. . . . I was expected to give back, especially to those less fortunate than myself. Service could take many forms. It needn’t be in the military or government. It could be in the nonprofit world, journalism, law, academia, medicine, business, or elsewhere.

 

In her 11 December remarks, however, she indicated that too many had not been as fortunate as her: “Today, for far too many, the American Dream has become an empty promise—a cruel mockery of lives held back by barriers, new and old. That’s not good enough, for any American.” She ended her remarks, by adding that she believes “that we all rise or fall together” and that she will do all she can “to bring the American Dream far closer to reality for all.”

“A cruel mockery.” How so? Take just a few examples of the many that could be cited. The disproportionate number of Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans who have suffered, either from contracting the coronavirus and/or from losing their jobs because of it. The disproportionate number of Black people who have been imprisoned, many still incarcerated and others having a tough time on the “outside” because of their criminal record. The scorn and mistreatment many immigrants and their children have received from Trump and some of his followers.

In response to the “cruel mockery” that the American Dream has become for so many people of color, how do many Whites react? A prominent view, as historian Christopher Lasch once pointed out, is that “failure to advance . . . argues moral incapacity on the part of . . . disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities” (Trump’s simplistic view of society’s “winners” and “losers” has been strongly affected by such thinking). A 2017 Pew Research Center poll indicated that Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe that rich people are rich because they work harder, and almost three times as likely as Democrats to believe that the poor are poor because they are lazier.

But it is not just people of color who often see little chance of obtaining the American Dream. Many Trump supporters have also been frustrated by what they consider declining American opportunities, and by threats to the American Dream. And, of course, Trump has encouraged them to perceive such threats. For example, during the 2020 presidential campaign, he tweeted, “Suburban voters are pouring into the Republican Party because of the violence in Democrat run cities and states. If Biden gets in, this violence is coming to the suburbs, and FAST. You could say goodbye to your American Dream!”

Four years earlier, author George Saunders identified some of the early fears of Trump supporters in his essay “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” He referred to many of them as suffering from “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defined as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.” The “some Other” could be such groupings as Blacks, feminists, illegal immigrants, or university professors.

In a 2017 article “Who Are We?” conservative columnist Ross Douthat indicated that Trumpites’ one-sided view of American history was part of the problem. They preferred “the older narrative” of U.S. history, the one that glorified Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, Lewis and Clark, and Davy Crockett, the one that emphasized the melting pot (not multiculturalism), and the U.S. Christian tradition (not separation of church and state, and certainly not any secularist thinking).

This view was akin to that of right-wing columnist Jarrett Stepman in his The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past (2019). Like him, many Trump supporters believed that “an informed patriotism is what we want.” But our history includes not only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison; not only the Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation; not only  defeating Nazi Germany and outlasting the communist Soviet Union; but also decimating Native Americans and enslaving millions of Africans--and decades after emancipating them, segregating many of them for more than a half century.

Further insight into the fears of Trump supporters regarding their fading American Dream is supplied by New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall in his recent “The Resentment That Never Sleeps.” He writes: “Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees . . . . Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others. The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.”

Edsall quotes Cecilia L. Ridgeway, who wrote: “Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society. . . .The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.”

At present, confidence in the achievability of the American Dream is low. Many Trump supporters fear the worst from a Biden presidency. And many Biden supporters fear the U. S. public is going to going to continue its polarized ways. In that confidence in realizing the dream increases as the economy and economic equality improves, the chances of increased confidence will depend in part on whether a Biden administration can, as our present pandemic gradually recedes, “Build Back Better,” as his slogan has it. 

People of color, immigrants and children of immigrants (like Vice-President- elect Kamala Harris), and poor people generally will probably become more hopeful of achieving the American Dream once Biden replaces Trump. Rice’s remark that she will do all she can “to bring the American Dream far closer to reality for all” seems sincere and an aspiration shared by Biden.

Yet, despite Rice’s talk of restoring the dream for “all” and Biden’s desire “to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. . . . to work as hard for those who voted against” him as for those who voted for him, more than an improving economy and greater equality will be needed. A more gripping and tangible dream that can be imagined and sought for by young and old, poor and rich, Black and White, and rural and urban dwellers needs to emerge.

In our present age of polarization, cynicism, and individualism, presided over by perhaps the most narcissistic president in our history, we once again need to broaden our dreams, our collective American Dream. For inspiration we can look to our past.

To Frederick Douglass, who in 1869 advocated a “composite nation,” a “citizenry made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.” 

To William James, who more than a century ago decried our "moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS,” interpreted as making more money. And who thought “we now need to discover in the social realm . . . the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible." 

To Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), who was first elected president in 1932, in the darkest days of the Great Depression and amid “a steadily degenerating confidence in the future which had reached the height of general alarm”; amid a “deep cultural divide between urban and rural Americans, or modernists and fundamentalists”; and when “rural folks who aggressively supported ideas and traditions largely in harmony with their established way of life” felt threatened by the growing dominance of the big cities and more recent immigrants. But despite this gloom, FDR created many New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which not only created jobs, but appealed to people’s idealism.

To the progressive Frances Perkins, who became the first woman appointed to a Cabinet position when FDR made her Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and who is sometimes referred to as the architect of the CCC.

To John Kennedy, who inspired the nation when he created the Peace Corps and even earlier (in his 1961 Inaugural Address) when he said, “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  

To Martin Luther King, whose American Dream was reflected in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” and his July 4, 1965 sermon, “The American Dream.” In the latter, he stated that he still had a dream “that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits.”

To Barack Obama, who in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (when he was still an Illinois state senator) depicted his own story--son of an African father and a Kansas white woman--as a reflection of the American Dream. And who later, as a U. S. senator wrote The Audacity of Hope, with the subtitle Thoughts of Reclaiming the American Dream. And who was still concerned with that dream after eight years as president.  

Although Biden’s path to reigniting the American Dream will depend mainly on the creativity and imagination of his administration--as well as the willingness of Republicans to put the common good before narrower crass considerations--one major suggestion might be made here: Follow the example of FDR and JFK and advice of some of the contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination and expand opportunities for national service.

Pete Buttigieg , President-elect Biden's nominee to head the Department of Transportation, suggested creating “new national service programs, including a Climate Corps, and a chief service officer in the White House.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren advocated a 21st-century version of the CCC.

As a recent piece on The Hill website declared: “If Biden’s goal of healing the nation is to have real meaning, then a good place to start with liberals, conservatives and centrists is national and international service. . . . [which] requires working together and sharing experiences among a diverse group of American high school graduates drawn from a broad political spectrum. The lessons learned— cooperation, understanding varied points of view and achieving a common goal—will build a stronger American body politic and society. Its time has come in this deeply fractured nation.”

Such national service, especially directed at improving our environment, would also expand our American Dream to include getting ahead in the best possible way--by helping others who share our Planet Earth.


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