Gary Younge writes: The final chapter of America’s Promise, a high-school textbook on American history, ends with a rallying cry to national mythology. “The history of the United States is one of challenges faced, problems resolved, and crises overcome,” it states. “Throughout their history Americans have remained an optimistic people, carrying this optimism into the new century. The full promise of America has yet to be realised. This is the real promise of America; the ability to dream of a better world to come.”
Such are the assumptions beamed from the torch of Lady Liberty, coursing through the veins of the nation’s political culture and imbibed with mothers’ milk. Their nation, many will tell you, is not just a land mass but an ideal – a shining city on the hill beckoning a bright new tomorrow and a dazzling dawn for all those who want it badly enough. Such devout optimism, even (and at times particularly) in the midst of adversity makes America, in equal parts, both exciting and delusional. According to Gallup, since 1977 people have consistently believed their financial situation will improve next year even when previous years have consistently been worse.
But when President Barack Obama was planning his run for a second term his pollsters noticed a profound shift in the national mood. The optimism was largely gone – and with it both the excitement and the delusion. The time-honoured rhetorical appeals to a life of relentless progress, upward mobility and personal reinvention didn’t work the way they used to.
“The language around the American dream wasn’t carrying the same resonance,” Joel Benenson, one of Obama’s key pollsters, told the Washington Post. “Some of the symbols of achieving the American dream were becoming burdens – owning that house with the big mortgage was expensive, owning two cars and more debts; having your kid go to college. The cost and burden of taking out those loans was making a lot of Americans ambivalent. They weren’t sure a college education was worth it.”
This wasn’t just about the recession – though of course that didn’t help – but a far more protracted, profound and painful descent in expectations and aspirations that has been taking place for several decades. For underpinning that faith in a better tomorrow was an understanding that inequality in wealth would be tolerated so long as it was coupled with a guarantee of equality of opportunity. In recent years they have seen both heading in the wrong direction – the gap between rich and poor has grown even as possibilities for economic and social advancement have stalled. [Continue reading…]