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How the Mitt Romney video killed the American Dream

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Cross-posted from The Guardian

Once, everyone believed they could succeed by hard work and gumption. Republicans no longer pretend to believe the myth.

Mitt Romney being covertly filmed
Mitt Romney described 47% of Americans as government-dependent 'victims' in a covertly recorded video released by Mother Jones magazine this week. Photograph: ITN

Mitt Romney's historic gaffe caught on video -- published, with great timing, by the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine -- in which he said that his campaign was writing off 47% of American voters since they "depended on government" handouts, was committed in an equally significant manner, as he delivered the remarks to a closed group of potential major donors in Florida. GOP stalwart and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan is calling for an intervention in the campaign, and even some fellow Republicans are scampering to distance themselves from the inflammatory remarks.

But I find the remarks fascinating and important to deconstruct because they affirm -- as insider discourse captured for the public often can -- the fact that a new kind of narrative for America has taken over from one of our oldest and most cherished national myths. What Romney's comments reveal is that the American Dream is dead, killed off by skepticism from the bottom up -- by the 99% of lower-income and middle-class people who no longer believe in it -- and by cynicism from the top down -- by the 1%, top-earning people who don't believe in it.

What, after all, is the narrative of "the American Dream"? It was a discourse formulated between the 1880s and the 1920s in the United States during the great waves of migration and expansion and reforms of the Progressive Era. Slogans, often used by political leaders who wished to court the aspirational, immigrant vote, invoked a promise that America was "the land of opportunity", where hard work, gumption and a bit of luck could make any poor kid a millionaire.

This mythology, embodied over those decades in the Horatio Alger stories consumed particularly by upwardly mobile young men and in the phrase "to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps," consistently held out that American promise by equating hard work (along with other good Puritan values such as delayed gratification, temperance, saving and self-reliance) with economic success. As new waves of immigrants reached our shores after the second world war, the implicit pledge was elaborated into the idea for immigrants that even if their own hard work did not lift them into a new social class, it would elevate their children into the ever-growing ranks of the middle class.

The promise of the American Dream swept many presidents into power. Reagan offered a rightwing verison of it, with Bill Clinton -- departing from leftwing orthodoxy -- offering voters in 1992 a refreshingly-worded progressive version of the same promise: "work hard and play by the rules" and success will follow. Barack Obama, too, reprised the phrase in his 2008 campaign.

But now, the injunction to "work hard and play by the rules" is more likely to elicit a cynical cough of derision than a rush to the polling station. Post Tarp, post Libor scandal, post Madoff scheme, post justice department's pass for Chase, post HSBC money-laundering, post Occupy, post the ever-widening income gap in this country, and post the evisceration of civil society and public institutions that protect the middle class, the entire underpinning of the American Dream has been uprooted. And everyone knows it.

It is not surprising that the 99% stopped using the language of the American Dream, but what is notable from Romney's remarks is that even the wealthy have abandoned it. Notable because the premise -- that their own hard work and ingenuity is what caused their wealth to aggregate -- is a flattering and self-validating narrative. So, the fact that even the rich don't buy a version of what is now self-delusion is striking.

What Romney's remarks show is that the wealthy are handling the corruption of a system that benefits them by assigning blame for the destruction of the American Dream to the have-nots. In the Reagan years, only "welfare queens" and the small percentage of people actually on food stamps were targeted as drains on the system -- needing "government handouts" and failing to "take responsibility for their lives." Now, as Romney admits, the wealthy deem virtually half the voting public as irredeemably shiftless moochers. Notable, too, is Romney's use of an Occupy-echoing phrase, "the 47%," whom he feels free to objectify and dismiss.

Not especially shocking, though, is the fact that he is explaining to donors that he does not need that half of America. (Anyone who has worked on presidential campaigns knows that strategists all write off the 47% who will never vote for them; they just don't tend to go on camera to do that disparaging.)

I have been noticing, with sadness, that politicians do not even bother invoking the American Dream anymore. They know that we know that everything is rigged against it now, and that the language no longer persuades even the most naive and idealistic; the best you'll get from a politician is a pledge, playing to nostalgia, to restore its lost promise. But what is striking about Romney's remarks is that they have replaced that commitment with a willingness to blame a vast swath of striving, middle-class Americans for their plight.

We thus see a turning-point in American conservative philosophy. This was the moment when the wealthy elite stopped believing its own PR, the self-affirming myth of that economic success can always be had for those who want it and are willing to work. Mitt Romney has told us that it's now simply class war: a struggle to stop the other half getting what "we" have. Thank you for your candor, Mr Romney.

 

http://naomiwolf.org/

Author, social critic, and political activist Naomi Wolf raises awareness of the pervasive inequities that exist in society and politics. She encourages people to take charge of their lives, voice their concerns and enact change. Wolf's landmark (more...)
 

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as the problem is not what Romney said but what th... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 10:04:05 AM
The last jobs report revealed that a third of Amer... by MadAngel on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 10:55:27 AM
Last thursday I met with a man from the UK who is ... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:14:19 AM
Why don't some of these big corporate job creators... by Francine Caran on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 2:44:33 AM
for a number of reasons.   The primary r... by Doc McCoy on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 4:16:51 AM
First she was "right and wrong," and now she's "de... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:57:05 AM
'The reality is that he has only succeded in divid... by 911TRUTH on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:06:44 AM
when he had complete control, not once did he reac... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:18:29 AM
There is no middle ground on what the government h... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:12:00 PM
...the reasoning works but the premises miss huge ... by Laura Stein on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 3:48:07 AM
those who collected unemployment for the maximum t... by Doc McCoy on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 4:39:01 AM
America has become lazy (Not everybody Laura as I ... by Michael Morris on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 6:14:12 AM
is what Obomba has done? Isn't writing off 47% of ... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 10:35:04 AM
Michael Morris,Your are wrong on the following sta... by BravoBull on Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012 at 5:58:36 PM
As for Taxes, I was only referring to Federal Taxe... by Michael Morris on Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 at 6:00:08 AM
If you read the words that is bad enough. However,... by Terry Ballard on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 10:25:41 AM
he was answering a question back in March or May I... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 10:57:08 AM
... by MadAngel on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:06:25 AM
political spin.  Both sides are guilty. ... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:21:45 AM
in your subsequent comments, M.H.? Then we could d... by Gentry L Rowsey on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:43:11 AM
Please educate me. Wh opaid for the wars in Afghan... by Terry Ballard on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:08:45 PM
"...like the couple in CA that had a 1.4mm dollar ... by Eric Arthur Blair on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 8:32:14 PM
It was Seattle couple..   http://www.stormf... by Michael Morris on Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 at 6:11:14 AM
second post, and the second string of unrelated ta... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:09:33 AM
for slavery, your remark assuming that African-Ame... by Laura Stein on Tuesday, Oct 2, 2012 at 2:58:55 PM
Free People do not have 'leaders' they have public... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:18:33 PM
And the other 53% are dependent on the federal gov... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:15:18 AM
Is there anyone beside me who feels that all the "... by Anthony Barnes on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:35:01 AM
One party is willing to share the ideas and method... by MadAngel on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:18:36 AM
The problem is looking to federal government to so... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:23:05 AM
How can you have a public policy comment without m... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:20:38 PM
Are  you saying you don't believe Obama's own... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:20:20 AM
is as you have portrayed or is it something dark i... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:47:17 AM
I'm just saying that Obama becoming President prov... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:24:09 PM
Stale mate? Would that be the first mate or the se... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:19:18 AM
Obama says he needs to reform America to create 'o... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:26:43 PM
No child is "illegitimate" but certain opinions ar... by Anthony Barnes on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:28:23 AM
you have to come to grips with the fact that there... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 12:05:58 PM
I totally agree, and am embarrassed that I ever be... by Deborah Dills on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:58:44 AM
"But now, the injunction to "work hard and play by... by Rixar13 on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:44:27 AM
"But now, the injunction to "work hard and play by... by Rixar13 on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:44:40 AM
Mr. Romney didn't ,"kill the American Dream". He m... by Paul Repstock on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 11:51:52 AM
... IF they had the capital to do so. It is capita... by SwamperTom on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:54:09 PM
The call to, 'Break up the Banks', is a disaster l... by Paul Repstock on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 2:23:45 PM
do you really think that the same people who are d... by Michael Morris on Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 at 6:18:27 AM
I didn't say share the wealth. I am for seeing mon... by SwamperTom on Tuesday, Oct 2, 2012 at 6:23:55 PM
Few are willing to do the work it takes to succeed... by private person on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:29:02 PM
But, only when the author is man enough to stand u... by Paul Repstock on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 8:26:23 PM
Independence, liberty, the siren call of freedom b... by Lance Ciepiela on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 12:14:27 PM
Fed Reserve is at one root of the problem.... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 12:41:41 PM
"We have owners- forget the politicians-they are p... by Deborah Dills on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 12:02:40 PM
Conservatives have been methodically dismantling t... by Mark Triggs on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:00:36 PM
Here is an important addition to Naomi Wolf's ex... by Dr. Tom Baldwin on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:29:57 PM
Government hand-outs to corporations is at least t... by Gary Brumback on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:59:40 PM
The distorted framing of the 1% ruling-elite is th... by Alan MacDonald on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 2:26:16 PM
Morris Berman is the man.... by Lester Shepherd on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 6:15:53 AM
LOL, nooooo!  I don't think so.  The Ame... by Sister Begonia on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 3:34:56 PM
I find it odd that no were has anyone broached the... by Keith Hupp on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 4:49:25 PM
Naomi,It's not just Romney that is trying to steal... by Deborah Dills on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 6:50:13 PM
At least Obama gives his base kind words as he sen... by Matthew Peters on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 7:13:30 PM
One big lie that Romney set forth in his speech to... by Eric Arthur Blair on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 8:45:37 PM
So the honest right realizes that the "pie" isn't ... by Leslie Piper on Sunday, Sep 23, 2012 at 9:55:15 PM
The so called "American Dream" should actually an ... by Doc McCoy on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 12:46:03 AM
but people here do have a positive attitude. The w... by "Snake" Arbusto on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 11:54:14 AM
The fact that the people who run the corporations ... by David Smith on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 4:45:37 AM
This is a great article.  Thank you.... by Anthony Barnes on Monday, Sep 24, 2012 at 10:50:03 AM
Naomi's article here got 87 views and 1 comment, w... by Allan Wayne on Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012 at 11:48:27 AM