The true nature of the American Dream and the difficulty of communicating simple solutions to complex problems
You’ve no doubt heard the story about the high school student who mowed lawns and tended to the school garden so that he could pay off the lunch debt of poor students. We think of it as a nice human-interest story about compassion, hard work, and generosity, but we miss the underlying revelation that the richest country in the world can’t afford to feed its children.
The billionaire David Geffen gives $150 million to the Yale drama school so that it will now be tuition-free, in the process renaming the school the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University. “Free Tuition For Prestigious Acting School,” the headline says.
But we miss the larger story about the incredible inequity in university admissions and the outrageous costs involved in obtaining a higher education in America. Not to mention the obscenity of the wealth of a man who can afford to give away $150 million so someone will name a building after him. Legacies can be expensive endeavors to maintain.
Social media is full of inspirational stories meant to warm our hearts, preserve the myth of meritocracy, encourage charity, and soften the rapacious image of the uberwealthy. It does it rather simply and effectively.
The tech writer, entrepreneur, and CEO Anil Dash wrote recently, “Most of what gets shared as heartwarming stories, are usually temporary, small-scale responses to systematic failures. I wish we found it just as inspirational to make structural changes to unjust systems, but don’t know if our culture knows how to tell those stories.”
It’s true. We don’t yet know how to tell those stories, or if we do, we haven’t figured out how to get people to read them. For one thing, we’re not even reading the same stories anymore. We’re more likely to end up reading conflicting accounts, or worse, completely different stories from completely different worlds. The question is who is writing the stories.
Republicans are not better at messaging than Democrats, but they are more effective. There is a reason why the Right’s messaging is visceral, blunt, and to the point, whereas the Left’s seems to be overly broad, unfocused, and vague.
If truth and intellectual honesty aren’t that important to you, and you’re willing to foment fear and hatred, create bogeymen and straw men, then coming up with provocative messages is quite easy. If you’re trying to sell complex economic models to a broad coalition with disparate priorities, then you have to be sort of vague so that everyone thinks you’re talking about them.
In some respects, the two political parties in America are mirror images of one another. They’re both trying to sell a complex theory of prosperity that requires the majority to sacrifice for the good of a select few for the eventual good of the whole.
The Republicans want the majority to bear the burden of taxes, to shrink the size of costly government services, to minimize social costs so that the minority can remain rich. It is the rich, they argue, that make all the jobs and make prosperity for everyone possible. If they don’t make money, no one will make money. The masses go along with it because they hope one day to also be rich. No one roots against their own dreams for success.
Democrats, on the other hand, want a minority to bear the burden of greater taxes, to grow the size of government, to maximize social programs so that we can eliminate poverty, thereby lifting everyone. The sell is that no one has to be poor if we all share. But there is very little upside to this sell for your average schmo. No one aspires to get out of poverty. We aspire to be rich. It’s hard to write a five-word slogan to promote the value of a struggling middle class. We don’t dream of incremental progress. We dream of winning the lottery.
Where we’ve lost the plot in America is the notion that any measure of the quality of life is entirely dependent on the commercial value and success of the individual. We might have all been created equally, but we are not all treated equally.
If you raise children, teach, pick up trash, farm, fight forest fires, or stock grocery store shelves, your life is simply not worth as much as that of a CEO, professional athlete, actor, or other celebrity. Fame and fortune are our gods, and it is capitalism that demands that we bow down to worship them.
For thousands of years, Christians preached a gospel of austerity, humility, and personal sacrifice. But beginning in the early 19th century, Americans began to question this theology with a movement known as New Thought.
“Practitioners of New Thought, not all of whom identified as Christian, generally held the divinity of the individual human being and the priority of mind over matter. In other words, if you could correctly channel your mental energy, you could harness its material results. The upshot of New Thought, though, was the quintessentially American idea that the individual was responsible for his or her own happiness, health, and situation in life and that applying mental energy in the appropriate direction was sufficient to cure any ills.” (Tara Isabella Burton. 2017.)
What began in the healing rituals of tent revivals in the 1950s became the purpose of televangelism of the 1980s. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, He will certainly deliver security and prosperity.
A 2006 Time poll found that 17 percent of American Christians identified explicitly with the prosperity movement, while 31 percent agreed with the idea that “if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.” A full 61 percent agreed with the more general idea that “God wants people to be prosperous.”
Faith, therefore, became the measure of a man. If you’re sick or poor, it’s not because of a corrupt system of government or failed economic policies, but a simple lack of faith.
It’s not hard to figure out why so many politicians have embraced this new theology. It offers all of the rewards with none of the political risks. Nothing is the fault of the government because we are now living in a cult of individual achievement.
The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be blessed. The atonement is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.
This politically convenient combination of magical thinking, individual achievement, faith, and acceptance are the perfect groundwork for exploitation and oppression in the name of an all-powerful God. A gospel rooted in success rather than scripture. After all, who can be against us if God is with us?
The American myth of exceptionalism and individual triumph has been our greatest asset in world domination and our greatest disaster for our own civil rights and quality of life. The wealthy are successful because they are better than everyone else. The poor are poor by choice or lack of action. You are who you are, because of the choices you’ve made.
This is an oversimplified understanding of terribly complex issues of behavioral economics, structural inequality, a fundamental history of racism, and the remnants of a colonial mindset. But it certainly makes for a compelling narrative that is easy to understand and fits into the limited worldview of small minds.
What should the narrative be then?
Do we tell stories of hope and triumph, or do we tell tales of oppression and pain? Which do you think will be more compelling? You don’t sell manure to people living in shit. You sell them the promise of redemption and everlasting rewards they didn’t do anything to earn.
Democrats claim to value and honor authenticity, truth, and facts, so they have a hard time creating messaging with bold promises because both the political opposition, as well as the mainstream media, will rip them apart, claiming that what they propose is not realistic. Republicans have no such problem. They don’t care what the liberal media says about them and they’re all on the same page, singing the same tune. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is parroting whom, the right-wing media or the political elite.
What Democrats lack is any clear vision for an equitable future. We know the horrors of what Republicans have in mind for us, but no real picture of what a Democratic utopia might look like without falling into blind faith in the magical thinking needed to produce a promised land.
The problem is, in my opinion, is that they’re trying to solve a question of possibility with the logic and reason of probability. It’s not an economic problem we’re facing, it’s one of morality and national values.
We can all be better off. This is not some mythical ideal. Plenty of modern societies have long ago determined a balance between freedom and social equality. Remove the threat of violence and war, both foreign and domestic. Provide the basics of human endeavor, from healthcare to employment, housing to justice. Ensure that no one is left living on the edge of desperation and destruction. There is only one reason that we cannot do this, and that is that it would produce fewer billionaires.
But rather than just demonizing the filthy rich, Democrats must also offer a glimpse of the promised land; a window into what ending unfathomable wealth could mean for the rest of us. You won’t get very far just casting aspersions on the lifestyle of the rich and famous. For generations, we’ve been sold the American Dream of celebrity as an indication of righteous prosperity.
We claim to be a meritocracy where wealth is earned, but it’s a painful fallacy not supported by evidence, either empirical or anecdotal. Wealth is seldom earned. It’s won through a combination of luck, unearned talent, and institutional biases. Rich people stay rich. Poor people stay poor. A few brave souls win the lottery, either through genetics or capricious fortune, and this keeps the dream alive.
Nothing could be more emblematic of this than the rise and deification of Donald J. Trump. The ultimate failure who began with millions and cheated and stole his way to becoming a minor celebrity who merited nothing. Who built nothing; made nothing. He is famous simply for being rich. He desired affirmation and acceptance from the upper-class and was rebuffed repeatedly for being exactly who he was. So he turned to the dispossessed and disgruntled and became their hero. The rich guy who was excluded from the private club, just as they would most certainly be if they ever found themselves in that position.
What they forgot was that they chose to worship individual achievement, not social responsibility or community well-being. When your credo is every man for themselves, you cannot tie your success to another’s. No more than a sports team winning a championship is really your win. If your champion wins, you get nothing. Your personal situation and prospects for the future do not improve. You simply paid to allow someone else to achieve their dreams. Trump’s success is not their own. It is his alone. He is not a self-made success, but he did fabricate his image out of whole cloth.
The difference is that this time, the unwashed masses can imagine themselves becoming Trump. He has no discernible gifts, no talents or skills, no empirical values of intelligence or good looks. His only ability seemed to be his willingness to poke the establishment in the eye and say things no one would have said. He’s the inelegant schlub who made it to the penthouse. If he could do it, they could do it.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Left has no faith, and therefore no dream, to sustain them. They’ve allowed reason and logic to choke off the possibility of dreams. Public policy is one of structured reality, logistical necessity, and legal requirements. But selling a dream has no need of reason. It requires something less tangible. It requires magic.
The Democrats need a bit of sorcery to inspire the masses. Liberalism is alive and well in the arts, yet we have failed to embrace and promote artistic expression as a viable form of communication. We have tried to reduce complex economic theory into soundbites without any effort to make an emotional plea. In our effort to combat mysticism and blind faith, we have lost the art of storytelling.
It’s time to tell stories, and allow ourselves to dream. It’s time to create a vision for the future and worry a bit less about the path to get there.