Remember the American Dream?

Watching Donald Trump trash immigrants and refer none-too-obliquely to people who are less fortunate as “losers”—all while wearing a hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again”– is depressing me. The fact that he is currently leading the GOP pack deepens that depression considerably.

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 and is 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 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).

Neither of them is likely to be the next President, but they are stark representations of the choice America faces, of the fork in our national road. We can choose nativism, civic unrest and continued decline, or we can do the hard but necessary work of restoring the social contract, repairing the social safety net and breathing new life into the American Dream.


  1. A most thoughtful piece, Sheila. My husband and I have discussions about these kinds of things everyday and wonder what happened to this country in our lifetime. We grew up in the fifties and sixties and even the unrest in the sixties never shook our faith (not necessarily religious faith) like what is happening in this country today. We are saddened and shocked now to see the differences in the kind of unrest, the lack of respect for one another, the social and economic disparities so prevalent with no sense of hope for so many. Thank you for putting words to our thoughts and discussions.

  2. My “American Dream” in this “land of opportunity” is simply to maintain my status quo. If Trump and his minions have their way; that will be taken from my grasp when they destroy Social Security (which I paid into over 25 years) and take way my Medicare (which I pay for monthly) plus co-pays for my supplemental.

    Matthew Tully’s column in the Star today, “Finding a silver lining in Trump’s rhetoric” has a point – he IS calling attention to the issue of immigration. In reality he is waving a red flag in front of the bull-headed anti-immigrationists on all levels. Like warning someone not to step in that pile of dog s#*t in front of them but not offering to clean it up…or ordering one of his laborers to do that job. I have a personal stake in immigration issues and the current continuing do-nothing attitude in Congress is frightening. And they continue doing nothing to use it as a bargaining chip in the current presidential nomination campaign, otherwise known as the Republican dog and pony show. The issue of becoming an American citizen is cost-prohibitive; what is the source of that problem, Bush’s Patriot Act?

    The Donald is wrong in his speeches to his followers regarding their inability to realize their own American Dreams; he is one of the systemic inequities and at this time the lead “nefarious other” standing in their way and in our path to survival.

  3. Thank you for such an articulate and beautifully written piece! Bernie and Donald certainly are products of our discontented age; and, simply by virtue of their being further from the mainstream political center, they are drawing more attention than ever to the despair many Americans are feeling. Yet my fear is that their polarity will end up creating just another instance of the kind of divisiveness which plagues us in this country, and which makes it so much more difficult for tings to “get done.” The ease with which people follow Trump, despite his having offered virtually nothing of substance, is both mind-boggling and testament to the despair now so prevalent among so many.

  4. It is wrong to characterize Senator Sanders “being far(ther) from the mainstream”. Several studies/polls have asked questions about the issues Sanders raises without mentioning his name. There is wide agreement with those issues. Sanders is closer to the middle than pundits and opinion makers concede. If I remember correctly Sheila has expressed this. It is incorrect to characterize Sanders and the one not to be named being similar distances from the center. Think about it. Activist groups including Indiana Moral Mondays are working to bring about reforms needed to ameliorate our societal ills. These perceived ills are what Bernie has talked about for decades, while The Bloviater was amassing obscene wealth. To state that both have slim chances to win the Presidency denies what ” the center” wants: Sanders’ platform. As long as he is praised for it it but disallowing his chances is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  5. “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.”

    This is exactly what I have been saying to people for the past 10 years. When people have nothing left to lose they will be desperate enough to do whatever they have to, in order to survive. This is why there is SO much anger in our country. All hope for a chance at a better life has been taken away.

    The Tea Party has taken greed to levels that probably never before existed in this country.

  6. Sheila,
    Loved today’s column and can’t wait to read the comments on your thoughts, especially from Pete and JoAnn.

    I just finished reading “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: The Clash Between Myths and Reality” by Morton E. Tavel, MD. I didn’t read his background until the end of the book. As you must know, he’s an Indianapolis native, IU graduate and IU Med School graduate. I loved his comments on Oprah and her guest, Suzanne Somers, a truly deluded wing-nut. And I kept my fingers crossed to see if he’d address Darwin vs Religion, which he did in a very factual, low key way.

    If the good doctor is a member of your blog i hope he reads this. And I consider myself lucky to have found your blog, Sheila, it’s one of my favorites. Namaste…

  7. It is not hard to envision our continent in the coming decades looking more like the Middle East than the land of opportunity. Oligarchy.

  8. There are an endless examples of people who have worked hard and “made good” and all of the hand-wringing notwithstanding very few people work diligently without improving their lot in life. An IRS study in 1996 showed that only 5% of the bottom quintile from 1979 were still at the bottom by 1996 with 29% making it to the top quartile. Trump is not popular because he blames anyone for failure. He is popular because he reveals the ineptitude of the current political class. That is the only class warfare needed to solve this country’s woes.

  9. I don’t credit conservatives with cogent thought.

    There are two kinds of them.

    First there are the “leaders” struggling for personal supremacy and riches. The Donald is a slightly extreme example. Wayne LaPierre another. Their strategy, which is as old as civilization? Pick the losers and blame them for everything and I mean fully everything. Scare followers into obedience by telling them endlessly that the losers will be eating their lunch any minute now.

    “Followers”. Bobble heads scared to death by the daily barrage attractively packaged and delivered into their living rooms, kitchens, autos, magazines, churches and even bathrooms in some cases, that “losers” are winning. Their treasure is being sucked into the pockets of the poor. You know, that “other” kind.

    A few puppeteers and millions of puppets at alternate ends of big media strings.

    That’s what historians will record happened to the American Dream. It was stolen by some and given away by others.

    Unless we make history instead.

  10. Bernie has my vote! My husband and I are both in our 40’s and we are acutely aware that we have had to work harder and acquire degrees and yet we are still losing ground. Our parents who are in their late 60’s/early 70’s are finally becoming aware of my generations reality. We are the generation of the shrinking middle-class. We are living it every day.

    I get tired of hearing if you work hard you will….most people of my age are workng at jobs where in the past they would have 2 people would do but in an effort to cut costs companies cut labor and then want us to work longer and ‘harder’ to make up the loss in that one person. There is underlying subtle threats that if you can’t you will be gone… Our salaries have not kept up with the cost of living.

  11. Nancy; reading your comments on today’s blog brought words of an old Kris Kristoferson song to mind:

    “Freedom’s just another word
    for nothin’ left to lose,
    nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’
    but it’s free”

    We are edging closer and closer to having “nothin’ left to lose”; our religious freedom has been usurped by Bible thumping pseudo Christians turning their beliefs into laws, depriving entire groups of Americans of their civil and human rights. Voter registration and voting, education, employment opportunities, income levels, personal medical decisions, the sex lives of many are scrutinized and governed by the actions of legislators and upheld by SCOTUS. Even immigrants have the right to SEEK American citizenship but that is being denied by the do-nothing Congress holding this country hostage under the threat of another government shutdown. I wonder if some of them have returned to their homelands when they become aware of the true conditions in this country today under control of addle-brained rulers who are controlled by the 1%.

    Thorne; you must have quickly scrolled past the comments section in your rush to add your’s. This is my second comment…or are you waiting for Pete to respond to both of us at the same time?

  12. “An IRS study in 1996 showed that only 5% of the bottom quintile from 1979 were still at the bottom by 1996 with 29% making it to the top quartile. ”

    Perhaps this was true under Clinton but, frankly, it isn’t consistent with what I observe. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

    I would bet big money that it’s not even close to true today.

    The poor struggling hard to make it true for them will be permanently buried under college debt nowadays.

  13. Make America great again is one of those glittering generalities slogans. How exactly Trump is going to to that is never expanded upon. The beauty, if you will, of a glittering generality is it can be translated into what ever you want it to mean.

    As a direct result of NAFTA, and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China our factories closed and reopened off shore. Nike sells millions of shoes in the USA, but not one is made here. Many of our politicians worked hand in glove with the Multinational Corporations to ship our jobs off shore, and hide their profits off shore also. Bernie Sanders voted against NAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.

    I am a Bernie Sanders supporter, and it is frustrating to say the least, to see the McMega-Media constantly downplaying and/or ignoring his campaign. The other tactic is to keep repeating over and over again, Bernie Sanders cannot win. The Corporatist wing of the Democratic Party is concerned as Hillary’s campaign continues deflate. The Corporate Wing of the Democratic and the pundits now want to warm up Joe Biden in the Corporate Bullpen.

    As Bernie Sanders said on Bill Moyers show – “It’s not in the interest of the corporations who own the networks to actually be educating the American people so that are debating the real issues. It’s much better to deflect attention away from those issues and get into the story of the day.”

  14. JoAnn,
    No, I wasn’t waiting to hear from you & Pete. I was writing around 8 AM and there were NO posted responses to Sheila at that time! It took awhile to write it and after I sent it I hit the blog’s address and suddenly there were a bunch of replies above mine. I really enjoy this blog and especially yours, Pete’s and Sheila’s . Rachel Maddow, Sheila & you are my favorite Liberal Ladies who I’ll never meet, dammit. Keep up the great work, JoAnn…

  15. Thorne; I jumped to a conclusion, the only exercise I will get today. I later noticed that while I was typing my comment, other comments had been posted before me…including one from Pete. Sheila’s blog provides information, insight and facts; the comments keep me connected with the outside world and often provides subjects for me to research on line. I have made a new on line friend and encouraged my ex-husband to join us; giving me a cyber space social life. Also gives me an audience when I need to vent; I think I just described Sheila as my personal therapist:) The only way I can afford therapy in today’s economy. Thanks Sheila and friends.

  16. You can write off Donald Trump; I’m thinking that his candidacy is one long political satire. Don’t discount Bernie Sanders, though. He’s no joke, nor does he behave as is he’s a joke. His candidacy is serious.

  17. “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’s because they were White Christians of Western European stock.

    That’s it. This culture succeeds and creates the best standard of living in the world wherever we find it.

    Every example of great living someone uses, from Norway to Iceland to Canada to Australia always references White, Christian, Western European.

    Some thanks are in order.

  18. I remember after Obama was elected, there were people likening him to Hitler in the 1930s, as he came to power in Germany and Austria. (A native Austrian woman wrote a column about Hitler’s takeover of the Austrian education system, and the right wing-nuts ran with it.) I remember laughing to myself, thinking how stupid these people were…that Obama was nothing like Hitler, but perhaps the predecessor to a future crazed conservative that could be elected as a knee-jerk reaction to an Obama presidency. Hearing the Donald speak, as much as I understand much of the frustration with the DC elites that he taps into, makes me think more and more about Germany in the 1930s…

  19. Gopper, a book that would enlighten you is “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jerad Diamond. He explains why the material progress of Europeans occurred when and how it did. Of course it was the latest rise of empire building great civilizations following the Mid East, Far East and America’s.

    All due to empire building not culture.

    So your dream of a master race is nothing but a dream.

  20. Goober – your complete ignorance never ceases to amaze me. You most likely take great pride in knowing that white men came to this land and stole it from the natives – just as they have to so many other civilations.

    YOU should be ashamed of yourself!

  21. I go straight to Pete’s posts leaving the others for later if I have time. Pete seems to be skilled at nail-head-hitting

  22. “Every example of great living someone uses, from Norway to Iceland to Canada to Australia…”
    …has socialized, single-payer healthcare. Godsdamned Commies!

  23. Girl Cousin! I do not quarrel with any of the Link you posted. But if I were a lawyer, I would object and say, “non-responsive!” If you discover a way to make something that people want that costs less to make than what you customers are willing to pay and you sell a kajillion of them, you will be rich. Unless you and I make the same product, your success has no bearing on my success. People need to stop whining about how much other people make and get busy making their own. Are there some unscrupulous sleaze balls making money on shady deals. Yes, some, but even those do not affect you or me adversely.

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