In between the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was asked to review an article concerning the attitudes of displaced workers toward their plight. The study suggested that cultural narratives shape the social and political consciousness of those suffering economic distress in both positive and negative ways. The article made me think about the convention speeches and the impact that they may have on working- and middle-class listeners whose lives have been disrupted by the Great Recession. How might they use the words and cultural narratives suggested in the convention speeches?
The New York Times actually tracked how often the Republicans and Democrats used certain words at their conventions. Other than the names of the presidential candidates, God, and taxes, the most common terms at both conventions were work, jobs, families, opportunity, economy, and success. All of these terms are closely associated with the American Dream, which was also mentioned frequently.
The frequent use of these words is to be expected, given that the American Dream has been the most dominant aspirational and cultural narrative in our county. Among other things, the American Dream suggests that through hard work and education individuals could improve their standard of living and that improvement would continue for each successive generation. But that narrative has become contested because of declining socio-economic conditions and downward class mobility. A question now being heard, as noted in an NPR story last spring, is whether the American Dream is still viable, or has it become a nightmare?
To answer that, it helps to consider the political uses of the American Dream. Political economists have suggested that it has served hegemonic purposes, allowing small but powerful groups to exercise political power with high levels of popular consent. In the case of the American Dream, they suggest, elites have used this powerful narrative to create a social and political consciousness that would not threaten the privileged. For example, some elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support. A recent example appeared in the Republican convention, which emphasized the claim that “We Built It” in response to President Obama’s suggestion that businesses don’t build the roads and infrastructure that allow their enterprises to succeed.
But what happens when the American Dream becomes discredited? Does it lose its ability to shape political consciousness? As the Occupy Movement has shown, the American Dream has been betrayed, and today the story of America is characterized by injustice, inequality, and unfairness. But that movement created what’s called a counter-hegomonic narrative, a story that made clear that the Dream is no longer attainable. A narrative emphasizing the betrayal of the American Dream could play a powerful role in shaping social and political attitudes and in deciding the election this year, as the study I mentioned earlier suggested.
Of course, candidates still insist on citing the American Dream in their speeches. But while some people still find hope in that narrative, others recognize that their own situation reveals the Dream’s contradictions. So what will be the dominant influence? Hope? Or a change in the way we think about the American Dream?
I suspect that people will look more critically at the limitations of the American Dream narrative than they have in most previous elections. A recent Pew Research study shows that Americans increasingly define themselves as lower class. The greatest shifts occurred among adults under 30, especially whites and Hispanics and those without a college degree (whom pollsters often consider working-class), though many who have college degrees also identified as lower class. The pattern holds across political affiliations, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More important, those who identified as lower class also supported the idea that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, and they expressed little optimism for the future.
Given that, politicians would do well to go beyond embracing the American Dream and instead identify clear strategies for renewing its viability. Unfortunately, neither party has been able to suggest anything except increased education, and they offer few concrete plans to help more people attain that. Most of the time, the best they can do is make oblique references to raising the standard living and improving trade and manufacturing policies. Despite their fervent statements of faith in the American Dream, what we’re hearing is mostly aspirational political rhetoric. And many Americans just aren’t buying it anymore.
That skepticism might, eventually, provide the foundation for broader discontent, which could take many forms. As Election Day gets closer, perhaps the biggest threat to both parties, but especially the Democrats, is apathy and resignation from voters who no longer believe in the American Dream.
John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies