We need to be clear that the American Dream in the 21st century is not the dream of the 20th century. We can ask the pointed question, “Why would anyone want the financial wherewithal to put 20 cars in his garage, let alone 400?” The obvious answer is that the Dream has been hijacked. Our culture seems confused over just what a flourishing life means. We have substituted material wealth for the richer and deeper meaning of prosperity. “Prosperity” involves what we hope for in life. Prosperity is about how one lives more than what one owns. Indeed, real prosperity is about having what money can’t buy: loving relationships, peace of mind, fulfilling work, captivating activities, ennobling community action, and virtuous living.
This isn’t to say that Americans no longer want financial security. They do, and such security—for example, no crushing medical bills and having affordable college education—is the basis of prosperity and well-being. But the American Dream in the 21st century is about raising consciousness. That raising takes two forms: first, expanding consciousness and then, second, elevating it. The first is nothing other than raising the awareness of workers that they already have the wherewithal to control their workplaces, but at this point lack the political will and organization to do so. The second, the elevation of consciousness, is to remind us all that human flourishing involves more than material well-being. It means establishing the conditions whereby all Americans can live out a full life that they think is good.
Meanwhile, before talking about this renewed American Dream, a brief note on who can be a part of that vision but can’t supply the vision itself:
- Don’t look to the Democratic Party leadership, especially with Tom Perez at the helm. Too many Democrats, especially those in office, are tied to Wall Street and corporatism. Also, the Party leadership seems inexorably tied to neoliberal policies that turn workers against immigrants by blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs and that too often dictates policies to the people instead of relying on the experience and ingenuity of the people themselves.
- Don’t look to the unions. Over the past several decades Republicans in state offices have eviscerated them. Moreover, to protect their dwindling memberships, unions such as those in the building trades are supportive of such Trump moves as resurrecting the Dakota and Keystone pipelines. In short, unions have legitimate short-term concerns that for the immediate future supersede long-term visions.
- Finally, don’t look to the vestiges of the Sanders campaign. Although that campaign galvanized the left-wing of the Democratic Party and energized the young, it played too much of a single note: tax the millionaires and billionaires to provide free college tuition and universal health care. These are significant priorities and policies, but too piecemeal to function as an architectonic vision for a progressive future.
Our mission is to supply a vision in which the young; seniors; the disenfranchised; the disadvantaged and those left out or left behind; immigrants; progressives; warriors for social, political, and economic justice; and the working-class can see themselves as vibrant participants.
Too often a flourishing life is seen in terms only of what government cannot do to us, but not in terms of what government can do for us. Should all persons be free to love whomever they want? To marry those they love? To live wherever and however they wish? YES! Should people be free to worship freely? Gather freely? Speak, write, read, and act freely? YES! These are all freedoms, or should be, enshrined in our Constitution as rights. They tell us where government cannot interfere. But living a good life, a flourishing life, often requires more than hands-off from the government. It includes other kinds of freedoms—freedom from economic insecurity, freedom from environmental degradation, freedom from worries about our health and the health of those we love, and freedom to receive education at public expense and as part of the common good. Government should assure and protect those freedoms.
Presumably Republicans would not disagree with all of that. But…they would disagree with most of it, especially if it is government that will secure those freedoms. We see the need for government to intercede whenever and wherever any of these freedoms remain unrecognized or are threatened, weakened, or abrogated.
This, I am sorry to say, is the seemingly non-negotiable, un-navigable, unbridgeable separation between progressive Democrats and Republicans. The reason is simple: Republican politics rests on the idea that government is not the solution to problems but is the problem itself.
The Republican perspective begins with this: Government ruins everything; the market solves all problems. Therefore, the less government in our lives, the better our lives will be. So, according to Republican dogma, people in the private sector, not those in government, are the job creators. If the government returned to them or didn’t take from them their hard-earned money, then those creators would generate millions of good-paying jobs. Tax cuts, therefore, constitute the bedrock of all Republican policies. Facts running against this position don’t even slow down the trickle-down train.
So ours is not a vision of a free market, of unbridled individualism, of “me first” or even of “America first.” It is, instead, a vision predicated on the integration of the individual within a social context that comprises family, neighborhood, community, state, nation, and the world. This, then, is a comprehensive vision, one that seeks to stabilize and democratize as fully as possible as many areas of living for persons as is practical. At the same time, the vision helps us see our lives inextricably woven into the fabric of the lives of others: residents, citizens, fellow earthlings.
This seems like a large commitment, and it is. We live on a single planet, a planet currently in trouble, and for this reason we are all dependent on one another. We are all interdependent. Only through the false sense that we are all social atoms, irredeemably separate from others, can we think and act as if we live life in a bubble, responsible only to and for ourselves alone and for our individual happiness.
But how do you draw the line that separates you? Have you no family and friends, neighbors and fellow citizens with whom you are interdependent? And why should that interdependence stop at the borders of our nation?
When we believe the lie that we are independent social atoms, then we tell ourselves myths about being “self-made men,” about going it alone, about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. But somebody made those bootstraps; there is the very strong chance that that somebody was not the person pulling them up. Somebody else made those boots, the socks on the feet that go into the boots, and the pants that go over those boots. Somebody else also built the road that self-made men are going it alone on; somebody else helped make them the persons they are. No personal narrative can fail to recount those individuals and social settings along the way that were central and even formative to their life stories. No one goes it alone; no one gets anywhere or does anything without a connection to others. We may think that we do, because we fail to look beyond the small circle of family and friends to the community and society that made possible the infrastructure, circumstances, institutions, and values that enable your circle to thrive.