It was James Breslow Adams who popularized the phrase “American dream” in his 1931 book Epic of America, defining it as “a dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Considering how pliable and sweeping this idea is, it’s not surprising that the term has become a political platitude used to bolster every crackpot idea floating in the ether of American discourse.
Which brings me to progressive favorites Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, who recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed detailing exactly how they plan to revive the American dream. There they offered a host of ideas and said, “Rebuilding our middle class won’t be easy, but real change rarely is. It’s time to be bold.”
The most striking thing about a progressive proposal to resuscitate the American dream isn’t that it embraces theories that would constrict economic growth, or that it places the bureaucratic state at the center of moral and social life, or even that it peddles the zero-sum idea that the poor can be fed by eating the rich. No, it’s that the agenda is the antithesis of bold. Politically speaking, it’s “easy,” risk-averse, tedious, and small.
So I ask: What happened to progressives? If the American dream can encompass anything at all — from a shining city on a hill to equality before the law — how did Warren and de Blasio end up with “Make work pay by increasing the minimum wage” as their lead item? Where are the Upton Sinclairs and Margaret Sangers? Where are the big ideas? The trust-busting and the utopia molded by eugenics? How are we going to blow up this gilded age acting like a bunch of pikers?
One way for progressives to sell voters on their imagining of the American dream is to try to make the United States seem correspondingly small. Convince voters that they’re living in a nation lorded over by oligarchs. Convince them to think more about ideology than about their everyday existence. Progressives want you to vote like you spend your time selling apples on corners rather than driving affordable and increasingly safe vehicles to the local Applebee’s for a reasonably priced meal.
George Carlin famously quipped that the “reason they call it the American dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The few of us who still believe we live in a meritocracy and have faith in human adaptability disagree. But it is, perhaps, simply human nature to believe we have it worse than our parents — to romanticize the past and underrate our own lot in life.
Voters are incessantly told to embrace policies that will allow them to recapture the American dream — because, if you haven’t yet heard, it’s gone missing. While some conservatives believe our best days came and went in some morally pristine bygone era, most progressives and populists — people who have been gaining ground in political life — know the precise date when the American dream was eradicated: January 20, 1981.
From the 1930s to the late 1970s, “as gross domestic product went up, wages increased more or less across the board,” Warren and de Blasio argue in the Washington Post. “As the economic pie got bigger, pretty much everyone was getting a little more,” and the United States was able to create a mighty middle class.
“Then in the early 1980s, a new theory swept the country . . .”
Scary stuff. According to the Left, during the past 35 years, the top 10 percent of Americans greedily devoured the entire growth of income and left the rest of us picking up the scraps. For 25 years, a few people squirrelled away trillions while the rest of us were left to buy preposterously useful smartphones that connected us to the world, eat a more eclectic selection of nutritious foods than our grandparents ever knew existed, and live annoyingly long lives. We, the rest of America — “90 percent of Americans,” for those of you who struggle with numbers — got nothing. “Zip. Zero,” the duo informs us.
Does anyone really believe that the American middle class, in general, is worse off now than it was in the 1970s or even the 1950s? One of the commonly agreed-upon meanings of the American dream is that parents will see their children do better than they did. Does the mayor of New York City really believe that kids in his town were better off in 1975 than they are in 2015? I imagine that deep down he understands that in every area of human existence worth measuring, we are better off than our parents.
What blinds people to this truth, as you might imagine, is ideology. And in the case of these two, that ideology is unionism. If only we had the lunch-pail ethic of the 1950s, when Americans made stuff! You know, when we led the kind of lives people like Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio believe might be delightful for your children but probably not so much for their own. A world where Americans can be judged by pay scales and seniority rather than their ability or achievement.
Yes, there are those who have been left behind. Society has its struggles. This is not unique to our time or our place. Neither is our anxiety about the world. Human beings have long worried about economic unraveling or runaway technology or environmental disasters. But nothing should terrify Americans more than politicians and technocrats who think they know what your dreams should look like.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.