Saturday, December 09, 2006

The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth

Where the Dems screwed up the 2004 presidential election (well, among other things) was the placement of their candidates for P and V-P. John Edwards, as focus groups showed, had a much more powerful message than John Kerry, who waited two years before figuring out he should be mad at the Swift Boaters. Edwards' "Two Americas" theme, played only on the campaign trail at backwater stops where he couldn't show up Kerry, was clearly one that touched the strings that need to be played, especially now, to solidify Dem acceptance among marginal voters. Not more pandering to Repub special issues, not "I'm OK, You're OK" centrism. "Two Americas"--one of those who have made it and one of those who still have the dream but are losing the means and are looking hopefully or desperately for someone who will support them.

The nice thing about Edwards' version of the American Legacy to human history--a nation based on opportunity for all and governed by all v. a nation institutionalizing the stagnating status quo--is that the choice which Edwards pushed is demonstrably the best for the long-term economic as well as democratic health and welfare of our country. What do I mean by "demonstrably"?

This. Norton Garfinkle's The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth: The Fight for a Productive Middle-Class Economy. Garfinkle, the chair of The Future of American Democracy Foundation, lays out the evidence for the success of the two opposing concepts and clearly shows that the "Dream" has been far superior to the "Gospel." Or, to use humans as symbols, Lincoln was far better for this country than Carnegie.

Lincoln plays an important role in Garfinkle's tale, literally the prototype of the person who rises from nothing to something not just through work but through opportunity made available by a supportive economy and government, opportunity available in America not available anywhere else at the time. Lincoln understood his situation and luck. It was why he favored free labor over slavery, why he saw slavery not only as a moral wrong but also as an economic threat. But, most of all, he saw it, and fought a civil war over it, as the sickness that, if allowed to spread, would undermine the ideals expressed in the Declaration. As Garfinkle says,

The freedom guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was of value, in Lincoln's view, precisely because it enable humble individuals to attain an independent, middle-class standard of living by the work of their own hands. America was the first nation on earth to offer this opportunity of economic advancement to all, even to the humblest beginner, and this was what made the nation unique and worth preserving.

The American Legacy, our contribution to human history, in a nutshell. And while government would be limited "by the people," it was also "of the people" and "for the people" and had an active role to play in providing and protecting these opportunities.

But Lincoln was barely cold in the ground (tomb) when the Gospel of Wealth slithered into American life with post-war industrialism and the popularity of Social Darwinism. In this view, epitomized by Carnegie, "successful businessmen . . . were responsible for building a growing economy. Justice would be defined by the principle that those who contribute most to the economy deserved to be rewarded most and . . . could be relied upon to use their wealth for the good of society."

These two views--American Dream and Gospel of Wealth--have competed politically ever since. Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ v. Coolidge, Hoover, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushnev Dynasty. The "Dream" has a stronghold, with better symbols and images, but the "Gospel" easily incorporates those ideals into its own deceitful and self-serving rhetoric and actions. As Garfinkle realizes, each valued basic concepts--economic freedom, rags-to-riches. However, at their cores, they held opposing values: prosperity and advancement for the ordinary worker v. worship of the exceptional individual as prosperity's engine, universality and equality of opportunity v. exceptional rewards for exceptional achievement, government (with taxes) as a potentially constructive force v. government (with taxes) as the central problem, and, most importantly, a middle-class society v. a society sharply divided between rich and poor. (The shared symbols masking the stark and unconquerable divide between the two groups is why "bipartisanship" and "moderation" seem possible to superficial minds which fail to understand when "Gospel" types dig in and use governmental power to increase their own.)

A strong and broad middle-class is key for Garfinkle. Democracy requires it to buffer the class distinctions created by capitalism that separate consensus and reciprocity. As he states,

It is through the middle-class dream that Americans come to share common aspirations--aspirations that help to mute the differences in wealth, culture, race, and ethnicity that might otherwise threaten to tear a democracy apart. To survive, a democracy must also be a community--a society bound by shared values.

This is familiar stuff to democratic students, if not the Busheviks and the other counter-revolutionaries who use politics, business, and media to entrench the "Gospel." In itself, if you're familiar with this line of thought and want new insight on these points, it's probably not worth purchasing (although, if you are weak on US econ history, this is a good review). But Garfinkle's contribution is his thorough takedown of all the "scientific" (that is, the usual cherry-picked and purposely deceptive) justification of the "Gospel" and its dismantling of the middle class. Hot knife through butter. Not only that, he provides the truly scientific backing for "Dream" arguments that our economy works best with policies directed toward strengthening the middle class. The bulletpoints from those chapters alone should be a handout by every Dem candidate in 2008.

And that's really where the value of the book is. Proposals to strengthen the middle class, to extend opportunities to all Americans, especially children, harken back to RFK and MLK and would resonate even more now in far more perilous econ times. Yes, Repubs will claim their proposals do the same, but Garfinkle supplies plenty of bullets. Yes, Repubs may whine "class war." Just point at Paris and George. Garfinkle has laid out the story, the data, and the leaders to link to. It's practically paint-by-numbers now (did that just tell my age?). The Dems just need candidates who get it.

Edwards did and may still. Obama might step into the shoes if he'd stop aspiring to "Great Black Lieberman." Gore actually could, as he tried in 2000 but suffered from idiot media. That's the problem for Dems. The MSM doesn't have the mindset (or mind, frankly) to get the reality out. Dems will need other platforms and media. Blogs and Internet are clear options but teach-ins and marches (with more kids the better--"Please save the Dream, please, please" or "What Will Your Grandchildren Say?") might be part of a more creative action plan. But accepting and pushing the message, the "Two Americas" will hear to come first.

Our history for almost 150 years has been a contest between the "Dream" and the "Gospel." We have prospered with the former and floundered with the latter (not to mention the corruption and cynicism). That's reality, not opinion. Garfinkle proves it. But the "Gospel" will always have its greedy fingers out. It's up to the Dems now to slap them back once again. They have no excuse now. This book does give them the bullets.