[This was originally written as an outline for an NDD session.]
I'd like to offer a possible alternate angle to approach the American Dream. The concept of the American Dream is usually held to mean the ideal which each of us carries for ourselves, and how to achieve our personal goals and aspirations. I'd like to offer a possible different outlook, based not on the ideal we have for our own achievements, but rather in the sense of the ideal which each of us carries for our nation as a whole.
There is a crisis occurring with respect to our shared conception of America, with the ideal of how to build our nation and make it fair for everyone. More than at any other point in the past, Americans have lost faith in the visions of America articulated by both of the two major parties.
In the last few years, we've seen drastic political upheavals, in some ways greater than anything in our history. In 1994, the Democrats were dramatically defeated and deprived of their 40-year majority in the House of Representatives. In 1996, Republicans became the object of increasing voter disapproval, and their leaders' popularity plummeted.
What caused the voters' disapproval? In 1994, one of the leading sentiments against Democrats was that they had become too dependent on government programs. There was widespread feeling that Democrats had become too willing to give government benefits without any guidance from ideals of responsibility or self-reliance. The Republican's rhetoric about family values and self-discipline attracted the voters' support.
Republicans succeeded in winning a majority in Congress. However, their rhetoric about self-reliance and responsibility turned out to be just that--rhetoric. Upon taking office, their main focus turned out to be directing a stream of malice against entire groups of Americans. They devoted themselves to creating a whole array of labels to put on large segments of American society. Putting a label on a group is equivalent to identifying it as separate, alien, unimportant. Every label directed at a group represents another diminishment of our ideal of a unified nation, of our commitment to helping each other. By castigating and scorning various groups within our society, they degraded our view of ourselves, and of our unity as a nation.
In 1996, the voters did not deprive the Republicans of their majority, but their disapproval was felt. Many polls expressed their disapproval, and the Republican leaders' ratings drastically declined. The voters instinctively reacted against the stream of malice and vehemence coming from the new legislators. Neither party can truly to claim to have the voters' trust, or even their interest, in its general approach to domestic issues. This disaffection has become apparent throughout the electorate.
The attacks on the American ideal are actually rooted in the conflicts of the 60's. In the 1960s, the ideal of America came under attack from both sides of the political spectrum as a result of massive national undertakings which met unexpected obstacles. The effects of the attacks are still very much with us today; in fact they are at the root of our current situation.
In the 60s the War on Poverty became the great rallying cry of the left. It was thought that fixing poverty would be pretty straightforward, just a process of allocating money and solving the problems. The issues and problems turned out to be more complicated, with unexpected obstacles. Instead of responsibly discussing the practical flaws, right-wingers eagerly condemned the whole effort. They did not simply attack the practical flaws in the governmental programs, but drew contempt down upon the motives of all those who joined in the effort and fought for their ideals. Their actions drew down cynicism and contempt upon the very idea of helping the poor.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War--and more broadly, the war on Communism--had become the rallying cry of the right. It was thought that fighting in Vietnam was necessary to prove our ability to act strongly and decisively in world affairs, to show our ideals. The Vietnam War turned out to be more complicated. Our defeat in that war greatly damaged our sense of ourselves, of our ability to act in world affairs and to expect to meet our goals. The left's response to that war mirrored the right's response to the War on Poverty. In this case, the left drew contempt down upon the whole effort, instead of respecting the motives of those who genuinely wished to serve their country. Their attitude had the effect of sowing cynicism and contempt for our ability to act decisively in world affairs.
What was happening was that the American ideal was being slowly broken down bit by bit. Both parties were so busy attacking each other to prove their own rightness that they failed to notice they were destroying the positive ideal of America held on any side of the political spectrum. Both left and right were attacking each others' most sincere ideals, their most fundamental beliefs about what made their country strong and how to make it better, without realizing the grim consequences of such relentless attacks.
During the Cold War, this was less noticeable, since the existence of a common enemy provided a common focus in spite of any other political disagreements. However, since the end of the Cold War, the divisions have become much more noticeable. Without a unifying threat, the rifts have become more acute and more polarized.
In addition to the problems on the domestic front (as described above), the change is evident in our response to threats from abroad. In Yugoslavia and other regions, American administrations have been afraid to get too deeply involved or pursue strong solutions. Every new commitment abroad brings a barrage of cynical criticisms from politicians on both left and right.
Post-Cold War Yugoslavia is the perfect example. For months, violence between Serbia and Bosnia spiraled out of control, against the feeble protests of the West. The US Administration refused to send air strikes against aggressors' artillery, despite repeated pleas that it would greatly help, that it would entail little risk to American personnel. Finally the tide turned--but not because our government resolved on a course of action. The United States finally acted not because of any informed political decision, but rather because outside events forced its action. The action was the result of a single brutal attack on a civilian marketplace which occurred in the summer of 1993. In the weeks afterwards, the world media was flooded with pictures of civilian casualties. The gruesome footage created a mood of intense public outrage.
Now finally, the wheels of state which had so long claimed their helplessness revealed their power. In the face of voter outrage, politicians now found their tongue and called for air strikes. The solution which for so long had been dismissed as ineffective or impossible was now shown to be simplistically successful. In the face of simple force, the aggressors pulled back.
The United States was not pulled into any quagmire, nor were we bogged down in long war. The simple concept of concrete action in the face of crisis led to the application of force which hurt the aggressors and made them pull back. But it took an external event to force us to that point. Politicians had given a hundred reasons why no actions would succeed--all of which were proven false by the action which we eventually had to take anyway. No one was able to rise and assert the simple idea of taking some sort of decisive action to affect world affairs, for fear of exposure to a tide of political criticism.
Now we come to the present day. We have won unprecedented victories on almost every front. The wars which we fought against other world powers are ended, with no one to challenge our power. We have eliminated all legal barriers which obstructed anyone's legal right to vote, to go to school or to work. Yet something is missing. There is a fundamental absence at the core of our ideals for our future. After years of assault by both sides, no one is able to reassert a common value, a shared ideal of what our country is and where we want to lead it.
Democrats neglect the idea of shared values, of self-reliance and discipline. Republicans scorn the idea of helping other Americans who are less fortunate. Both fail to articulate a coherent unified ideal of what this nation is meant to be.
We have overcome every external threat we faced as a nation. We have won the Cold War and emerged as the dominant global power. We have achieved all the victories we could have hoped for. This is an opportunity to use our resources in new ways. This time of triumph should be our greatest era. Yet where is that greatness?
Without a formidable external enemy to unite us as a nation, we are more than ever in need of some guiding ideal to unite us from within. Yet at this crucial moment, we are faced with the failure of either party to achieve that role of leadership, to articulate that unifying ideal. We are left now without any guiding ideal of American identity, without any broad concepts to rally to as a nation. Where is our guiding ideal? Where is our American Dream?
Is consensus possible? Can we reach a common ideal? I believe we can. I believe we can articulate an ideal which recognizes the need for everyone to be productive members of society and make a contribution, yet does not lose the element of compassion which guides us to help those who are less fortunate. But we won't get there by trying to come up convenient politics, with an approach that eliminates our responsibility to work or our obligation to help others.
We will need to define ourselves from the beginning. We need to work towards and articulate the ideals which can give us a new concept of our nation, a new American Dream.
This discussion is meant to be an exploration, an opportunity for different views to be heard without sinking into an atmosphere of combativeness.
What are some of the steps which individuals can take to bring new vigor to the American Dream? What approaches do you favor to improve the national social fabric? Do you favor involvement in local community organizations? Or do you prefer to work to alter national institutions through advocacy? What methods would you like to see utilized to bring that about?
What ideals do you believe can form the foundation of a new American Dream? What ideas shape your view of America? What are the principles which you feel can move this country forward? What goals would you like us to aspire to as a nation? What do you ideally picture happening in our nation, five, ten, twenty years from now?
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