The Corner

Obama vs. The American Dream

From a reader:

Jonah – I would like to see your thinking on the single overarching theme that bothers me most about Obama:  He constantly recasts “American Exceptionally” in the vein of group success, working together, one society, one world, etc. etc., instead of our history of rugged individuals first, coming together only when necessary in the interest of vital common cause.  There is very little pushback on this theme, and I find it annoying.

 I liked your Brooks comments.

Me: Well, dear reader, if you were wise, you would be a subscriber to National Review. And if you were a subscriber, you might have read my piece in the latest issue which I offer a little pushback to the vision laid out by Obama in his convention speech. Some snippets:


But beneath the fresh coat of rhetorical paint on the calcified clichés of contemporary liberalism there is a deeper vision to Obama’s speech, one that is both consistent with his rhetoric from the earliest days of his campaign and career and also perfectly in line with the ambitions of progressivism since its founding.

For generations politicians of both parties spoke about the “American dream,” a phrase that, though ill-defined, usually conjures up some conception of the individual pursuit of happiness. To own your own home, care for your family, succeed in what you set out to do: This, for most people, is what the American dream is about. Whatever the American dream means to most Americans, it is emphatically not a collectivist concept (though the phrase was reportedly coined by the progressive historian James Truslow Adams, who did see it as a more collective ideal). For most of us, there is no one American dream, because my dream is different from your dream. Victory can be pursued by a group; happiness must be found alone. 

The American dream, as most of us understand it, stands in marked contrast to the idea of the American promise, the central theme of Obama’s speech and even of the Democratic convention as a whole. In 1909, New Republic founder Herbert Croly published his book The Promise of American Life, widely considered the bible of the progressive movement (a movement Obama has explicitly declared the precursor of his own campaign’s mission). Felix Frankfurter dubbed the book “the most powerful single contribution to progressive thinking.”….

And later:

Obama’s sleight of hand begins in the first paragraph. After he dispenses with the thank-yous, he says: “Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story — of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.”

He continues in the next paragraph: “It is that promise that has always set this country apart — that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well. That’s why I stand here tonight. Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women — students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive.”

So far, it sounds as if Obama is simply going to use “American promise” as a stand-in for “American dream.” After all, his version of the son-of-an-immigrant success story fits nicely within the idea of the American dream. But after the opening reference to “individual dreams,” Obama’s speech becomes a Deweyan alchemy spell to transmogrify individual liberty into collective action. The promise of America, for Obama, is the hope that one day we will live in a country where we all work together, where “one person’s struggle is all of our struggles” (as he put it in his introductory video). The American promise, Obama insists, is “the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. . . . Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility — that’s the essence of America’s promise.”

It sounds benign, even noble, except for the central deceit in Obama’s plea. The Biblical injunction to be your brother’s keeper — what Obama calls “mutual responsibility” — is not a writ for government activism. You do not fulfill your obligation to look out for your fellow man by paying taxes, never mind by voting to impose them on others. Absent from Obama’s rhetoric is any serious acknowledgment that there are countless mediating institutions between the individual and the state. Civil society — churches, schools, voluntary associations, etc. — provides the sinews of the mutual responsibility that exists outside of the sphere of government. But for Obama, as with Croly, it is all either/or: Either you’re “on your own” or you’re in the good hands of the all-state, and I’m not talking about an insurance company. This is a marked contrast with McCain’s speech, which, in short, promised to reform government: Obama promises to reform America instead. 


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