LONGMONT, Colo., June 28, 2011 — Texas Governor Rick Perry, speaking earlier this month at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, was the latest in a long line of politicians to proclaim that we must “[R]evive the American Dream.”
This type of rhetoric is to be expected.
Our current definition of the American Dream — finding long term employment with annual wage increases and a reliable pension, owning a home and accumulating material comforts — is either dead or on life support. It’s unclear how we might revive this version of the dream or give birth to a new one. Americans are angry and scared.
Politicians, lacking credible ideas for how to revive the American dream, simply say that we should. Their calculation is that tapping into people’s anger and fear is good politics. Maybe it is. But it’s not good leadership and Americans know it.
No wonder trust in leaders is at historic lows.
The current definition of the American Dream has its roots in an era in which exploding productivity led to widespread growth in personal income. Workers shared the benefits of a growing economy. But most Americans haven’t enjoyed an increase in earnings for years.
According to MIT professors Thomas Kochan and Frank Levy, the average 40-year-old man with a high school diploma earned more in 1980, adjusted for inflation, than a similar man earned in 2009. Census Bureau data show that the inflation adjusted wages of men, in general, peaked forty years ago. Women’s earnings rose over this time period as more women broke “glass ceilings,” but for the past decade, even their earnings have been flat.
Rather than confront these economic truths, our nation embraced cheap credit as a way to keep the dream alive. Business, politicians, all of us were complicit in the scheme. We financed bigger houses and more stuff on the hopes of higher income in the future.
But now the jig is up. The economic shocks and after-shocks of the past few years have forced us all to confront the possibility that we were living a fantasy rather than a dream.
Dealing with the death of the American Dream as we’ve known it isn’t easy. We have to deal with our own feelings of guilt. Many of us know we made bad financial decisions during the go-go years of denial. Now we are suffering the consequences.
We are angry, in some cases justifiably so, that businesses and politicians encouraged us to live in denial for so long. The challenge is to move beyond denial and anger. Can we let go of the dream we once knew so that we can discover a new definition of the dream?
Our track record is not good.
Walter Russell Read, in an excellent essay, notes that this is not the first time in American history that we’ve had to rethink our dream. A century ago, owning a farm rather than a home “dominated American culture, politics and family life as much as the family home ever did,” writes Mr. Read.
That dream died hard, too. Mr. Read continues, “The slow and painful death of that dream was one of the country’s core preoccupations in the first half of the twentieth century.”
In some parts of the country, the battle to save this dream lasted well into the second half of the twentieth century.
While serving on the staff of the Speaker of the Kansas House in the late 1980s, I helped to analyze legislation to block the expansion of corporate farms. It was about this same time that musicians John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson began Farm Aid concerts. They continue to this day.
Midwestern politics were, and to some extent still are, dominated by efforts to save the family farm.
I am bullish on and invest in ag-business. But it’s a self-evident economic fact that farming requires fewer families now than it did in the past. No amount of nostalgia will change that fact. Yet in some parts of the Midwest it is still blasphemy to say such a thing.
That’s how long and tight people hold on to old dreams.
The problem is that when we are unable to let go of a dream that is dead, we are never able to fully turn the corner and consider realistic solutions to our current circumstances. Perhaps worse, when we are unable to let go, we are vulnerable to the hucksters who tell us we can go back to the way things were.
This is the situation we find ourselves in now on a national scale.
There will be good years again in America. Future generations are just as likely as past generations to prosper from our core principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s just that prosperity will look different than it did in the past.
Progress toward discovering a new dream must begin by letting go of our old definitions of the American Dream. We must work through our grief in order to move on.
* * *
John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.