Someone once said that there are two types of Americans: those who are rich, and those who plan on getting there someday. Advertising and easy credit have left their mark on the American psyche and the American bank account; we’d rather have a BMW than spend time with our kids and we’d rather own an empty vacation home than have a job that actually allows the time to spend on vacation. We measure the strength of our economy not in jobs nor in income equality, but in raw growth of Gross Domestic Product and in consumer confidence. A dollar saved is “bad” for the economy; a dollar borrowed and spent is “healthy.”
Therein lies the problem with the platform of the Democratic party: it’s realistic, not aspirational. Congress cuts taxes on the wealthy again and again without public outcry because so many people believe that, someday, despite all evidence to the contrary, those policies will benefit them. The average voter doesn’t care much about welfare or food stamps or unemployment insurance because the average voter thinks they’ll never be poor, hungry, or unemployed. We don’t care about health insurance because we don’t think we’ll ever get that sick. We don’t care about endless wars and deployments of troops because we’re not a part of that other 1% that defends our freedoms. And why would we? We live in a society where these problems have all been reduced to unpleasant abstractions. To many of us, the fate of the soldier from Dallas, Texas, her unemployed husband, and their uninsured neighbors have no more connection to our lives than the fate of a rare flower in the Indonesian rainforest.
Year after year, voters line up at the polls and vote Republican because they don’t want to face these uncomfortable truths. They want to believe in an America where every person can truly pull themselves up by their bootstraps and break into the top bracket of society. Never mind the recent study, cited by none other than Rick Santorum, which found this dream more plausible in such capitalist havens as France and Germany. Despite a tax structure that coddles the mega rich and the stagnation of middle class wages, we’ve stayed silent, entranced by the millionaires on our televisions, as this dream has flown from our grasp. Half a century ago, the American dream was to own a modest home with a white picket fence. Now we all want to be Kardashians.
The Democratic Party has lost this narrative. Instead of our hyper-individualistic ownership society where we prize the right to solitude above all else, we need to promote a new American dream; one where maybe the rewards of success aren’t as high—two houses instead of seven, or a share of a private plane instead of the plane itself—but also where the penalties of failure are not so horrific; where everyone can access the most advanced medical technology in the world, spend a few weeks of the year relaxing with their families, and get a useful education. We’ve lost sight of this dream because the Republicans have successful framed the debate in terms of the “nanny” state versus freedom; we need to frame the debate instead in terms of risk. An America run by the Republican Party is the national equivalent of a casino, where the lucky few gain all the rewards, and where the house always wins. To believe their story, all we have to do to be successful is to work hard. That’s insulting to the tens of millions of men and women who drag themselves out of bed every morning and work at menial jobs just to survive. When they don’t miraculously become rich it’s not because they’re too stupid or too lazy. Many of them work harder every day of their lives than you and I will in our most difficult week here at Middlebury. Should we punish them politically and demean their existence just because they weren’t dealt the winning hand?
The Democratic Party is the party of inconvenient truths and uncomfortable realities. Until we succeed in deflating the Republican narrative that wealth is nothing more than the product of hard work by pointing to the victims of their policies and by connecting their stories to the median voter—until we link them and their ill-conceived rhetoric of “freedom” from government assistance to the children who don’t have a place to call home and the mothers who can’t pay their healthcare bills and the soldiers dead from wars of choice in this country—we will remain on the defense, the middle class will continue its descent into poverty, and the American Dream will remain more of a fantasy than an attainable goal for the vast majority of this nation’s people.