“Policy-makers, Policy-making and the ‘American Dream’”

            Current Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s comments, made at a private fundraiser in Florida in May and recently released on video by Mother Jones magazine, declaring roughly half of Americans believed themselves “entitled” to government handouts and were dependent on them and therefore unlikely to vote for him, are by now well-known. The former governor has rightly been criticized roundly for his stance, which was and is both untrue and pernicious for democratic self-governance. I do not intend to repeat or expand on such criticisms here. Rather, using recent comments offered by Naomi Wolf of The Guardian and U.S. Senator James Webb of Virginia, I want to reflect on what Romney’s beliefs suggest about policy-making and the American Dream.

            For her part, the ever-thought-provoking Wolf has suggested that the former governor‘s observations indicate that the American Dream is dead and that his remarks constitute a declaration of class war in the United States on the part of the nation’s “Haves,” who blame its “Have-Nots” for that passing. As she noted in her September 12 column in The Guardian:

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. …

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.

            Senator Webb, meanwhile, a strongly independent and even cantankerous legislator, who had remained aloof from the current presidential campaign until he chose to introduce and strongly endorse President Barack Obama for reelection at a campaign event in Virginia Beach, Virginia on September 27th, also raised the issue of the American Dream in his remarks:

We all want the American dream – unending opportunity at the top if you put things together and you make it, fairness along the way, and a safety net underneath you if you fall on hard times or suffer disability or as you reach your retirement years. That’s the American Trifecta – opportunity, fairness, and security. It’s why people from all over the world do whatever they can to come here. … This is not the time to turn over the helm of the ship of state to someone whose views on foreign policy seem awkward and uninformed, whose economic policies favor those who are already advantaged, and who does not seem to understand that many of those who need government assistance today want to live the American dream just as much as those who have already made it. That they don’t think of themselves as part of a culture of dependency, but maybe need a little help here and there so that they might say they are living in a land of opportunity.

            These comments offer two alternative explorations of the implications of Romney’s stance, which favors still greater inequality in society and the removal of much public assistance for those requiring it, for the traditional American vision of opportunity. Wolf sees the GOP, by allying itself with the most ideological and libertarian of its number, as having embraced and launched an effort to enshrine a new sort of economic aristocracy in the United States that believes itself entitled to its standing by virtue of its wealth, which its members believe represents a sign of its supposed moral superiority. While Webb shares her concern, he did not declare the American Dream dead, but instead endangered, and he warned his audience that policy choices have helped to create the challenges the nation now confronts.

            The list of important policy decisions one might cite to buttress Webb’s argument is long: The United States elected in the last decade or so to enter into two wars that have cost the nation dearly in blood and treasure (Iraq and Afghanistan) and which appear to be resulting in ambiguous gains at best. At the urging of President George W. Bush, Congress chose to reduce taxes significantly and disproportionately for its most wealthy, but not to curtail its expenditures similarly, resulting in a continuing and very large structural budgetary deficit. The Congress chose to deregulate in substantial measure the nation’s banks and their undue risk-taking played a critical role in unleashing a near-Depression from which America is only slowly recovering. And finally, U.S. political leaders have chosen effectively to allow the nation’s vital public infrastructure to continue to decay, endangering the country’s long-term economic vitality and viability.

            Much more might be said of the significance of past political choices to the nation’s current economic and social situation, but it is not necessary to belabor the point here. As we enter the last weeks of a particularly divisive and rancorous presidential campaign, it appears prudent to stop and note that while one may point rightly to the ongoing importance of globalization and of fierce economic competition as contributing to a share of the nation’s challenges, a strong percentage of those trials were (and remain) of its leaders’ own devising. They also are of the population’s construction to the extent voters supported those decisions and the politicians who made them. Policy choices do matter, sometimes elementally, and elections are important too because they provide the popular legitimacy for would-be leaders to make those decisions. However one interprets the competing views highlighted here concerning the once and future status of the American Dream, those perspectives underscore the accuracy of the too often-derided observation, “elections matter.” They do. The current contest and the controversy and outrage concerning Mr. Romney’s unguarded comments and their portent for social and economic opportunity for all Americans highlight that reality afresh, if any reminder were needed.