The American Dream: To Restore or Release?

I recently read an article in Time by Fareed Zakaria that I found rather provocative. Fareed uses the article to recall how he envisioned and encountered the American Dream (conceptually and materially) as a youngster growing up in India in the 1970s. Remembering his arrival in the USA on college scholarship, Zakaria recalls being “struck by the spacious suburban houses and the gleaming appliances – even when [his friends’ parents] had simple, modest jobs.” Indeed, the problem of consumption is a theme that runs throughout the piece.

What I found striking, though, was the way in which Zakaria transitioned from focusing on the existence and growth of unhealthy American consumption (today, the average family in the USA has 13 credits cards, and household debt has risen from 680 billion in 1974 to 14 TRILLION in 2008!!!) to presenting ‘practical proposals’ (investing in the future of our children by investing in training, education, research and development, in route to strengthening economic infrastructure) while merely skimming the role that public and governmental morality plays in all of this. In his critique of the functionality of taxing in the USA, Zakaria notes that:

“the American tax code is a monstrosity, cumbersome and inefficient. It is 16,000 pages long and riddled with exemptions and loopholes, specific favors to special interests. As such, it represents the deep, institutionalized corruption at the heart of the American political process, in which it is now considered routine to buy a member of Congress’s support for a particular, narrow provision that will be advantageous for your business.”

Scathing and accurate!!! Yet Zakaria, having lambasted the relationship between government, taxation, and private business, quickly becomes (to my mind) disappointingly moderate again, saying that his proposals (which I parenthetically and summarily point to above) will be difficult to implement because “they ask the left and right to come together, cut some spending, pare down entitlements, open up immigration for knowledge workers, rationalize the tax code – and then make large investments in education and training.” If the corruption of taxation (not merely over or under taxing, but the means through which special interests become a central part of how taxation functions) as it relates to the structure of democracy is really “at the heart of the American political process” (and here I think Zakaria is on to something VERY important), then what is needed is not merely a reaching across the isle, but a disruption of the meeting in which the lives of American citizens, especially poor and working class citizens, are suspended between the left and the right and utilized as political tools to determine which side of the isle’s interests will receive the most tax breaks next term! The concern for poor and working people is not only marginal, it is non-existent.

Notice that the media, in the midst of this recession, has talked often of the “shrinking middle class.” Interesting choice of words inasmuch as shrinking denotes a reduction in size often brought about by “natural” chemical or biological changes. But the middle class is not shrinking, it is being (has been?) destroyed by privatization, predatory lending, and greedy banking that is funded, in large part, by the crooked tax breaks that Zakaria alludes to. And here we encounter an important truth, one that we know in different ways, but ought to hold our attention at this particular historical moment. The middle class is that buffer separating the privilege and wealth of the rich from the rage and anguish of the poor. And what the media has neglected to mention (at least most of the time) is that this “shrinking” middle class is attributable to a ballooning of the population of those living in poverty, which is further attributable to a smaller and smaller portion of the population owning more and more of the wealth!

At the end of this article, Zakaria points out that the etymology of “American Dream” can be traced to the Great Depression, when historian James T. Adams penned The Epic of America. For Adams, the American Dream was about “a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Alas, it was ALL a dream. We know that the birth of this Nation came not only through a Revolutionary War, but also through the displacement and murder of Native Americans and the subsequent enslavement of Africans. Thus from the jump, the American Dream has been an exclusive one in which those who can dream are those who have had the social and political privilege to rest while others literally build and sustain the country.

In the shadow of the recent midterm elections in which the Hope that saw Barack Obama win the presidency seems to have taken quite a blow, perhaps it is time to ask how we ought to posture ourselves in relationship to this American Dream. Shall we hope/work for the restoration of a dream that has never included all Americans? Or is it time (far past) time that we release this dream so that we might begin to imagine and build something new?

… These are some of my thoughts and reflections. PLEASE SHARE YOURS! Leave me comments, feedback, critique, etc.


About bens3rd
I am a PhD candidate in Christian Theology and Social in the joint program at the University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology. I blog here when my Facebook posts get too long.

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