Beyond Picket Fences and Frontiers

The classic American Dream is a uniquely assembled idea – it is both incredibly ambitious and intensely humble, the pseudo-religious fervor of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism existing symbiotically with the pastoral, ideally Jeffersonian vision of a simple and self-sefficient existence, one’s land neatly delineated along a white picket fence. In the most nostalgically prosperous periods in our nation’s history, this ideal has been the standard deviation from which American-ism has been measured. Both the settlement of the West in the 1800s and the rise of American suburbia in the wake of World War II gave opportunity to the American vision, the opportunity to make the nation great through the pursuit of what essentially amounts to relentless self-interest, free-market capitalism at its most energentically unrestrained. Conservatives have traditionally held, I think with some truth, that these eras of expansion have made the United States the country it is today. If we can only go back to those days, they argue, America will be on the right path again.

This vision is rhetorically intense and powerfully nostalgic – it appeals to all the patriotic centers Americans are taught as children to value, the home of the brave and the land of the free. It is easy to see, in this light, why America’s rural and suburban populations tend to be more conservative than our city-dwelling citizens – they are the descendants of settlers and World War G.I.s, people whose family narrative parallels an expansionary vision of U.S. power and influence. To someone who has no experience of the shared compromises of crowded urban life, it is difficult to suggest that they should give up their wealth to others when self-interest has seemingly brought them only greater prosperity.

As powerful as this vision of American life is, it is ultimately fatally flawed in its nostalgia, in its unwillingness to see the United States as anything but an expansionary economic and political power. It also attributes the entire onus of American success on an entrepreneurial courage and pioneering spirit. The historical reality is much more complicated. The settlement of the West has been paved on the backs of African slaves, our native peoples, and immigrants from every corner of the globe, and the post-World War II suburban explosion was in part driven by the mass migration of Southern African-Americans to Northern cities. The traditional conservative vision ignores these wrinkles – members of Congress today would have you believe that our slaveowning, Southern Founding Fathers worked actively for abolition. It is a retrospective blindness, one that papers over progressive cultural victories and wills itself to misremember history. A similar willful blindness afflicts the national debate today, and keeps us from seeing our modern economy as it truly is. A recent article in The Atlantic reveals the way that information technology and globalization have fundamentally changed the direction of the American economy, and rendered the nostalgic expansionary vision of the American dream practically, if not rhetorically, obsolete.

The integration of the global economy has uprooted, in some ways, our picket-fence blinders. A high school education is no longer a guarantee of steady, gainful employment. Even a bachelor’s degree is only the baseline for necessary additional skills specialization. As our world grows increasingly crowded in a nation that no longer has any frontiers to settle, the ideal of a largely self-sufficient existence supported by simple hard work isolated from the global economy becomes an increasingly nebulous pipe dream. While an entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit remains, and will remain, I think, the most essential component of future economic growth, we can no longer rely on our Mark Zuckerbergs and the Warren Buffets who back them to create jobs for the layman.

Over time, both trade and technology have increased the number of low-cost substitutes for American workers with only moderate cognitive or manual skills—people who perform routine tasks such as product assembly, process monitoring, record keeping, basic information brokering, simple software coding, and so on. As machines and low-paid foreign workers have taken on these functions, the skills associated with them have become less valuable, and workers lacking higher education have suffered.

As the economy becomes increasingly globalized, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the traditional stratifications of labor and income have widened to encompass the entire world – low-wage manufacturing workers in China and India are the new equivalent of the immigrant class that built America’s infrastructure and enabled its domestic expansion. It is unlikely that many of these jobs will ever come back to the United States.

The traditional conservative vision of American expansion wasn’t necessarily wrong or entirely inaccurate. More simply, is has been passed by – our nation is in the middle of an economic transformation that will enrich our educated pioneers of industry and technology while leaving our lesser educated citizens behind. While I lack the experience and expertise to recommend specific remedies to this problem, it seems to me that decreasing economic polarization among our citizens begins with educational opportunity. In order to create a culture that values collegiate or professional education and sees high school as a stepping stone to these assumed ends, we must make sure that every student who has ambition has the means and the opportunity to achieve it. This means removing the stigma of attending occupational school, decreasing financial barriers to both college and graduate degrees, and, perhaps most importantly, creating an educational culture that encourages students to pursue their natural strengths and dreams without coddling failure and abetting mediocrity and apathy. Of course, we will never be successful in every case – there will inevitably be people who legitimately choose to bring their poverty upon themselves. Moreover, establishing a cultural vision that looks to the future in a consumer environment that rewards every short-term satisfaction will be extraordinarily difficult. However, I believe these are things we must try to do – at the very least, this is the direction in which we should be laboring. Continuing in our current direction will only further exacerbate the imbalances and economic and social injustices that perpetuate cycles of wealth and poverty today.

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