Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face.
Billy Joel, Allentown
We know it today as the American Dream. The now-obscure historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The Epic of America, defining “the American dream” as:
a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Adams was writing in 1931, but the dream was there from the start, in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “happiness” residing in its 18th-century sense of prosperity, thriving, wellbeing.
Nobody ever came to America with a starry-eyed dream of working for starvation wages. Plenty of that available in the old country, and that’s precisely why we left, escaping serfdom, peonage, tenancy, indenture – all different iterations of what was essentially a “rigged system”, to put it in current political verbiage – that channeled the profits of our labor upstream to the Man. We came to America to do better, to secure for ourselves the liberation that economic security brings, and for millions – mostly white males at first, and then slowly, sputteringly, women and people of color – that’s the way it worked out, nothing less than a revolution in the human condition.
Upward mobility is indispensable to the American Dream, the notion that people can rise from working to middle class, and middle to upper and even higher on the model of a (fictional) Horatio Alger or an (actual) Andrew Carnegie. Upward mobility across classes peaked in the US in the late 19th century. Most of the gains of the 20th century were achieved en masse; it wasn’t so much a phenomenon of great numbers of people rising from one class to the next as it was standards of living rising sharply for all classes. You didn’t have to be exceptional to rise. Opportunity was sufficiently broad that hard work and steadiness would do, along with tacit buy-in to the social contract, allegiance to the system proceeding on the assumption that the system was basically fair.
The biggest gains occurred in the post-second world war era of the GI Bill, affordable higher education, strong labor unions, and a progressive tax code. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, median household income in the US doubled. Income inequality reached historic lows. The average CEO salary was approximately 30 times that of the lowest-paid employee, compared with today’s gold-plated multiple of 370. The top tax bracket ranged in the neighborhood of 70% to 90%. Granted, there were far fewer billionaires in those days. Somehow the nation survived.
“America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her syndicated column of 6 January 1941, an apt lead-in to her husband’s State of the Union address later that day in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential to American democracy, among them “freedom from want”. In his State of the Union address three years later, FDR expanded on this concept of freedom from want with his proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights”, an “economic” bill of rights to counteract what he viewed as the growing tyranny of the modern economic order:
This Republic had at its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship … As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy has expanded – these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.
Political rights notwithstanding, “freedom” rings awfully hollow when you’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death in your everyday life. The Roosevelts recognized that wage peonage, or any system that inclines toward subsistence level, is simply incompatible with self-determination. Subsistence is, by definition, a constrained, desperate state; one’s horizon is necessarily limited to the present day, to getting enough of what the body needs to make it to the next. These days a minimum wage worker in New York City clocking 40 hours a week (at $9 per hour) earns $18,720 a year, well under the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s a scrambling, anxious existence, narrowly bounded. Close to impossible to decently feed, clothe, and shelter yourself on a wage like that, much less a family; much less buy health insurance, or save for your kid’s college, or participate in any of those other good American things. Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a bad joke. “It’s called the American dream,” George Carlin cracked, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
“Necessitous men are not free men,” said FDR in that 1944 State of the Union speech. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A dire statement, demonstrably true, and especially unsettling in 2016, a point in time when the American Dream seems more viable as nostalgia than a lived phenomenon. Income inequality, wealth distribution, mortality rates: by every measure, the average individual that Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated is sinking. Exceptional people continue to rise, but overall mobility is stagnant at best. If you’re born poor in Ferguson or Appalachia, chances are you’re going to stay that way. Ditto if your early memories include the swimming pool at the Houston Country Club or ski lessons at Deer Valley, you’re likely going to keep your perch at the top of the heap.
Income inequality, gross disparities in wealth: we’re told daily, incessantly, that these are the necessary consequences of a free market, as if the market was a force of nature on the order of weather or tides, and not the entirely manmade construct that it is. In light of recent history, blind acceptance of this sort of economics would seem to require a firm commitment to stupidity, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true, that the free market exists as a universe unto itself, as immutable in its workings as the laws of physics. Does that universe include some ironclad rule that requires inequality of opportunity? I’ve yet to hear the case for that, though doubtless some enterprising thinktanker could manufacture one out of this same free-market economics, along with whiffs of genetic determinism as it relates to qualities of discipline and character. And it would be bogus, that case. And more than that, immoral. That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime equal in violence to child abuse or molestation.
Franklin Roosevelt: “[F]reedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” The proposition goes deeper than sentiment, deeper than policy, deeper even than adherence to equality and “the pursuit of happiness” as set forth in the Declaration. It cuts all the way to the nature of democracy, and to the prospects for its continued existence in America. “We may have democracy in this country,” wrote supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Those few, in Brandeis’s judgment, would inevitably use their power to subvert the free will of the majority; the super-rich as a class simply couldn’t be trusted to do otherwise, a thesis that’s being starkly acted out in the current era of Citizens United, Super Pacs, and truckloads of dark money.
But the case for economic equality goes beyond even equations of power politics. Democracy’s premise rests on the notion that the collective wisdom of the majority will prove right more often than it’s wrong. That given sufficient opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, your population will develop its talents, its intellect, its better judgment; that over time its capacity for discernment and self-correction will be enlarged. Life will improve. The form of your union will be more perfect, to borrow a phrase. But if a critical mass of your population is kept in peonage? All its vitality spent in the trenches of day-to-day survival, with scant opportunity to develop the full range of its faculties? Then how much poorer the prospects for your democracy will be.
Economic equality can no more be divorced from the functioning of democracy than the ballot. Jefferson, Brandeis, the Roosevelts all recognized this home truth. The American Dream has to be the lived reality of the country, not just a pretty story we tell ourselves.
I have always gotten much more publicity than anybody else.
Then there’s that other American dream, the numbed-out, dumbed-down, make-believe world where much of the national consciousness resides, the sum product of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex: movies, TV, internet, texts, tweets, ad saturation, celebrity obsession, sports obsession, Amazonian sewers of porn and political bullshit, the entire onslaught of media and messaging that strives to separate us from our brains. September 11, 2001 blasted us out of that dream for about two minutes, but the dream is so elastic, so all-encompassing, that 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the the matrix of FIC. This exceedingly complex event – horribly direct in the result, but a swamp when it comes to explanations – was stripped down and binaried into a reliable fantasy narrative of us against them, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim. The week after 9/11, Susan Sontag was virtually crucified for pointing out that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand how we came to this point”. For this modest proposal, no small number of her fellow Americans wished her dead. But if we’d followed her lead – if we’d done the hard work of digging down to the roots of the whole awful thing – perhaps we wouldn’t still be fighting al-Qaida and its offspring 15 years later.
Here’s a hypothesis, ugly, uncharitable, but given our recent history it begs inquiry: most of the time most Americans don’t know what’s real any more. How else to explain Trump, a billionaire on an ego trip capturing a major party’s nomination for president? Another blunt-speaking billionaire tried twice for the presidency in the 1990s and went out in flames, but he made the mistake of running as himself, a recognizably flesh-and-blood human being, whereas Trump comes to us as the ultimate creature, and indisputable maestro, of the Fantasy Industrial Complex. For much of his career – until 2004, to be exact – he held status in our lives as a more or less normal celebrity. Larger than life, to be sure, cartoonishly grandiose, shamelessly self-promoting, and reliably obnoxious, but Trump didn’t become Trump until “The Apprentice” debuted in January 2004. The first episode drew 20.7 million viewers. By comparison, Ross Perot received 19,742,000 votes in the 1992 presidential election – yes, I’m comparing vote totals with Nielsen ratings – but Trump kept drawing that robust 20 million week after week. The season finale that year reached 28 million viewers, and over the next decade, for 13 more seasons, this was how America came to know him, in that weirdly intimate way TV has of delivering celebrity into the very center of our lives.
It was this same Trump that 24 million viewers – a record, of course – tuned in to watch at the first Republican debate last year, the glowering, blustering, swaggering boardroom action figure who gave every promise of shredding the pols. One wonders if Trump would have ever been Trump if there hadn’t been a JR Ewing to pave the way, to show just how dear and real a dealmaking TV rogue could be to our hearts. Trump’s performance on that night did not disappoint, nor through all the debates in the long march that followed, and if his regard for the truth has proved more erratic even than that of professional politicians, we should expect as much. In the realm of the Fantasy Industrial Complex, reality happens on a sliding scale. The truth is just another possibility.
I speak the password primeval.
I would give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In nine days Trump and Hillary will take the stage for their first face-to-face debate. There will be blood. The knives are going to be out, and the ratings are bound to be, need it be said, yuge. The American Dream will no doubt be invoked from both podiums, for what true-blue patriot was ever against the American Dream? And yet for the past 30 years the Democratic candidate has worked comfortably within a party establishment that’s battered the working and middle classes down to the bone. The “new” Democrats of the Clinton era are always strong for political rights, as long as they don’t upset corporate America’s bottom line. Strong for racial and gender equality, strong for LGBT rights (though that took time). Meanwhile this same Democratic establishment joined with the GOP to push a market- and finance-driven economic order that enriches the already rich and leaves the rest of us sucking wind.
That’s the very real anger Trump is speaking to, no fantasy there. Bernie as well; small wonder their constituencies overlapped, though Trump’s professed devotion to the common man stumbles over even the simplest proofs. On whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Trump’s moral compass has spun from an implied no (wages are already “too high”), to implied yes (wages are “too low”), to weasel words (leave it up to the states), to yes and no in the same breath (“I would leave it and raise it somewhat”), and, finally, when pressed by Bill O’Reilly in July, to yes-but (raise it to $10, but it’s still best left to the states). All this from the candidate who’s firmly in favor of abolishing the estate tax, to the great benefit of heirs of multimillionaires and none at all to the vast majority of us.
Meanwhile, the Fantasy Industrial Complex is doing just fine this election season, thank you. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference in March, one of the commanders of the FIC, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS and a man whose 2015 compensation totaled $56.8m, had this to say about the Trump campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in and this is fun … this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”