Let’s deconstruct the notion of American “greatness.” Contrary to Trump’s (and others’) dog whistles, to the extent that the country’s greatness was real, it wasn’t because those who ran the show were white Christians of European origin. It was because we offered people who had very little a chance to improve their condition.
When I was growing up, the accepted description of America was “land of opportunity.” It was commonly believed that the American Dream could be attained by anyone willing to work hard; social mobility was the name of the game.
Cynics will point out—accurately—that the promise often exceeded the reality, but there was value in the widespread belief that personal responsibility and hard work could pay off, if not for yourself, at least for your children.
Knowing that poverty isn’t necessarily permanent is hugely important in a capitalist system. Inequalities may be inevitable, but they need not be paralyzing, they need not engender the sorts of simmering resentments that lead to social unrest, if they are seen as temporary and (fairly or unfairly) a reflection of the effort and entrepreneurship of the individual rather than an inevitable aspect of the system.
We are beginning to see what happens when the belief in the possibility of social mobility declines, when it becomes all-too-apparent that no matter how talented, diligent and industrious they may be, Americans can no longer work themselves into the middle class.
Thanks to short-sighted and mean-spirited public policies, such social mobility as previously characterized our economic system is largely a thing of the past.
In a column written a couple of years ago, Gail Collins put it bluntly:
“We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.”
Social scientists have documented the characteristics of stable democracies–the attitudes and institutions that keep societies from erupting, that strengthen the social fabric rather than shred it. A perception that the government “plays fair” and a belief in opportunity for advancement–a belief that effort and diligence will be rewarded–are among them.
When poor people lose hope–when the belief in the possibility of bettering their condition disappears, and they face the fact that social mobility is rapidly becoming a myth and the American Dream is out of reach–they become people with nothing to lose.
And that’s dangerous.
Bernie Sanders is drawing huge crowds, because he is talking about inequality and fundamental fairness, and offering specific policy proposals to address systemic issues.
The Donald is drawing sizable crowds by pandering to the resentments of people who have been unable to realize their own American dreams—by telling them that their problems aren’t due to systemic inequities, but to nefarious “others” (immigrants, minorities, women).
Trump and Sanders are stark representations of the choice America faces, of the fork in our national road. It’s a choice between nativism, civic unrest and continued decline, or the hard but necessary work of restoring the social contract, repairing the social safety net and breathing new life into the American Dream.
Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net.