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What is "The American Dream?": John Boehner vs. Barack Obama vs. Walter Trout

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On 60 Minutes last night, Leslie Stahl interviewed the incoming Speaker of the House, Representative John Boehner of Ohio.   Several times during their obviously convivial chat, Representative Boehner said he had "been chasing the American Dream" all of his working life and, summing up his posture on the deficit said "Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American Dream like I did . . . is important."

The "American Dream" is often thought to be a cornerstone of the American experience, probably something that came across the Atlantic with the first Puritans.   But in fact, it was an idea that we would recognize until James Truslow Adams, a historian, wrote a chapter called "The American Dream," in his textbook, The Epic of America (1931).   He wrote that "the American Dream" is:

"[A] dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

Since then the idea of "the American Dream" has been so much a seemingly natural part of every politician's rhetorical repertoire that the core idea it represents is largely assumed to be commonly understood as referring to the same things.   But it does not.   In fact, just as is the case with the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, there are dramatic differences in how the idea is interpreted.

President Obama, for example, gave a powerful "American Dream" speech on November 7, 2007 in which he articulated what I think of as a Progressive version of the story:

"What is unique about America is that we want these dreams for more than ourselves--we want them for each other. That's why we call it the American dream. We want it for the kid who doesn't go to college because she cannot afford it; for the worker who is wondering if his wages will pay this winter's heating bill; for million Americans living without health care; for the millions more who worry if they have enough to retire with the dignity they have earned. 

When our fellow Americans are denied the American dream, our own dreams are diminished. And today, the cost of that dream is rising faster than ever before. While some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle-class Americans--as well as those working hard to become middle class--are seeing the American dream slip further and further away....

There has been a lot of talk in this campaign about the politics of hope. But the politics of hope doesn't mean hoping that things come easy. It's a politics of believing in things unseen; of believing in what this country might be; and of standing up for that belief and fighting for it when it's hard.

America is the sum of our dreams. And what binds us together, what makes us one American family, is that we stand up and fight for each other's dreams, that we reaffirm that fundamental belief--I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper--through our politics, our policies, and in our daily lives. It's time to do that once more. It's time to reclaim the American dream."

By contrast, the Republican/conservative/Tea Party version of the same idea, articulated by John Boehner in the 60 Minutes segment, emphasizes his own story as emblematic of the whole story. Listen to his description in the link provided above.  

For Boehner, the core themes of his own American Dream story are: growing up a Roman Catholic in a "blue collar" neighborhood in Reading, Ohio; living in a small house with 11 other children and one shared bathroom; going to church every day; working from the age of 9 or 10 at his Dad's bar; taking seven years to complete college at Xavier University because he worked several jobs to put himself through; marrying a woman who was his boss; starting his own plastics business and becoming a millionaire; and rising to the position of Speaker of the House. 

What is brought to the forefront of Boehner's version of our national story is what can be characterized as the "rugged individualism" motif in support of the overall theme.   Unlike Obama's version, which emphasizes what we can all accomplish if we work together and share the bounty of this great country, in Boehner's version we see no one really helping him achieve his success, or very much about his interest in helping others achieve theirs.   At one point in his interview he says, tearfully, that when he looks at kids in school he wants them to have the same chances for success that he had.

He doesn't say how he would work to accomplish that goal.   Certainly his legislative record doesn't support the idea of helping them out of poverty, or helping to paying for better schools or daycare, or creating jobs for graduates or their parents in our struggling economy.   Instead, what he offers is the standard Republican fare:   Cut taxes, downsize government, and deregulate industry. I have to believe his tears are as heartfelt as those of a crocodile.  

But his harshest words--and the ones we ought to pay close attention to--are those reserved for the word "compromise."   When Stahl presses him to explain how "compromise" is inconsistent with "finding common ground," he dodges it.   In rough paraphrase that probably does more justice to what he actually said that quoting the words themselves, he says only that he equates "compromise" with giving up on principles, and then claims that we just had an election in which the American people said what they wanted and he wouldn't compromise because they would see that as a betrayal of them.

I wonder about that. I wonder if that interpretation of the election is valid.  Or even true.  In the election I witnessed the common ground seemed to be a groundswell of voters who wanted to reduce the deficit and create jobs for the unemployed.   Boehner has, so far, only backed tax relief for the wealthy that would significantly increase the deficit and has not backed any jobs program.   Instead, he repeats only the Republican refrain:   If the rich have tax cuts they will create jobs.   Unfortunately, that is simply not true.   Nor has it ever been true.   "Trickle down" never worked.   What rich people do with their money is to invest it with their friends on Wall Street so they get more money.   That's a fact.

John Boehner has lost touch with what the American people want or need.   Although he tells an American Dream story and claims to want to ensure that kids have those same opportunities, he doesn't articulate how government can help them accomplish their dreams.   He blocks or stands ideologically opposed to programs such as health care reform or education that would enable those dreams.   He reinforces the notion that even though most of his brothers and sisters remain blue collar he has lost touch with them and their dreams.   These days, he's a rich man, a powerful man, who plays golf, gets a deep tan, and just says "no" to the President.

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 

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There are differing interpretations of "the Americ... by Bud Goodall on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 11:23:04 AM
Thanks for bringing this up. "The American Dream" ... by Philip Zack on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 3:02:55 PM
Thanks for your reply. Yes, I agree. In the Comm... by Bud Goodall on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 3:13:42 PM
I think Croly (Herbert David) had a good handle on... by MaskedMarauder on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 5:40:24 PM
Probably, until recent times,was the American drea... by Joyce on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 3:19:58 PM
If you read the exerpted dream quote from Obama yo... by MaskedMarauder on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 5:22:50 PM
I'm sorry the link didn't work for you. Try this o... by Bud Goodall on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 6:28:00 PM
The American Dream is lived by those neatly balanc... by Vernon Huffman on Monday, Dec 13, 2010 at 11:35:34 PM