Did we stop too soon or did we go too far?
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump easily won their respective West Virginia presidential primaries, and many have commented about similarities between the two candidates and their supporters. At the risk of being likewise superficial and facile, I suggest an additional comparison with regard to the candidates’ views of the American Dream, where they agree on an existing problem but diverge with regard to their policy prescriptions.
Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis suggests” that recent decades have witnessed diminished attainment of the American Dream since its zenith in Post-World War II America. Putnam argues that realizing the Dream, where children will do at least as well as their parents, is no longer a reasonable expectation for all families.
He asserts that data indicate achieving the Dream has become class-based, with children born to well-off parents continuing to thrive economically while those born to the economically and educationally challenged are no longer as likely to exceed their parents.
Putnam further argues that previous barriers of race and gender have been replaced by a reassertion of barriers based on economic class.
Putnam and Sanders were born in the same year, 1941, and Trump is five years younger. The rhetoric of the two presidential campaigns echo Putnam’s warning that the American Dream is in crisis, in part, perhaps, because they have lived the same history. The candidates differ completely, however, on how to address the issue.
Putnam acknowledges that divergent approaches are inherent in the American self-image.
“We Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists — in the image of the lone cowboy ... but at least as accurate a symbol of our national story is the wagon train, with its mutual aid of a community of pioneers,” he writes.
Putnam believes that during the last half century, America has seen too great a sustained swing toward the ethic of individualism while under-emphasizing the role of the community.
One way to look at 20th century generational economic advancement is the triumph of the norms of universalism and inclusion. That is, leaders in the public and private sector, in the local community, statewide, and nationally, agreed that some very important things were for everyone regardless of social class or geography, and, eventually through court rulings and legislation, regardless of race or gender. These include mail and military service, electricity, community schools with strong arts and extracurricular programs, economic growth, a minimum wage, a guaranteed retirement benefit, insurance against unemployment, clean water, sewage treatment, and medical care for all senior citizens and children.
Trump and Sanders disagree about whether America went too far or stopped too soon with regard to universalism and inclusion. Sanders argues for more of both, advocating for extending and raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing medical care, child care, sick leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, a healthy environment and tuition-free college for all.
Conversely, one implication of Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” and his complaint against political correctness is that America went too far and included too many groups in the extension of universality.
Anyone driving to Sanders’ event in Kimball, McDowell County, could clearly see that, with too few exceptions, our public and private sectors no longer subscribe to the norms of universality. Schools, homes and businesses big and small, including a Wal-Mart, have all been abandoned, and the attendees at the meeting made clear that they feel abandoned, too.
Maybe America did go too far during the past century, and maybe America simply cannot afford to keep the local public schools open, to keep state college tuition low, to guarantee equal opportunity and a healthy environment for all regardless of age, race, gender, religion, disability, and sexual orientation and identity. Maybe individuals and families simply need to realize that they are essentially on their own.
There was a time when America did not provide those universal guarantees, and maybe that America was great and warrants reestablishment. Perhaps, however, people who will live most of their lives in the 21st century should review the evidence and decide if we might all be better off swinging the pendulum back toward increased collective responsibility.
James A. White is a professor of
political science at Concord University.