“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
― John Steinbeck*
I am not a fan of Steinbeck, but here he hits on an essential truth of American life. We believe, overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly, in American Exceptionalism. It has never been entirely true, of course, except that our abundant natural resources and usable land-per-capita has made us a wealthy nation, able to play patron to the brightest minds and the most stunning (or at least entertaining) arts over the years. The men who created the atom bomb were largely immigrants. Many Holywood stars originated at least as far away as Canada. Even icons like Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor were born citizens of Briton. In short, America does not so much breed exceptional people, it attracts them.
Sadly, we’ve developed this myth that being born an American is a leg up in the world, and that it means you will be presented with dozens of opportunities in your lifetime to become someone important, influential, or rich. Clearly, living in America is more stable than many parts of the world, and we do enjoy an abundance of natural resources, as I mentioned before. Those resources, though, are controlled, for the most part, by individuals and corporations, and not used in the public trust.
This is where I get to the meat of what i want to say: there are exceptional people of wealth and influence in the US, and in our secret belief that each and every one of us will someday be among them we have granted them special legal and social status that almost none of them deserve. We all believe that we are above average in most respects, and that the rich and powerful aren’t really that different from us. While the latter may be true for many of us, the former is a mental fallacy that is tearing our nation apart. We believe that we will join their ranks at any moment, by being “discovered” by Hollywood or Simon Cowell, by winning the lottery, or by having that one breakthrough idea that takes off over night. In that belief, we protect the rich. We want them to enjoy the fruits of their good fortune, because it is what we want for ourselves once we get there.
We are being repressed by our own greed. Our voices are being drown out by corporate money. We also stopped adding new representatives to Congress in 1910, even though population growth has been exponential, meaning that each person’s voice in congress has been diluted more and more each year. This makes it much easier for representatives to ignore individuals, and much easier to buy a large percentage of votes via campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. We are being repressed, and we are helping to make it possible. Tax breaks for the wealthy have cut off funding for government programs; programs our representatives put in place for our benefit. Loopholes have done even more damage, allowing companies to hide their money overseas, threatening to leave it there if we try to tax them on it.
When George Romney (Mitt’s father) ran a short-lived campaign for President, he released 12 years of tax returns showing that his taxes were 37% of his income. This was a point of pride for a man who employed Americans and sold the cars they made together to American buyers. He was proud that he didn’t use loopholes and tricks to get out of doing his part. The President, in his mind, was expected to be a leader in patriotic thinking and civics. He may have been a poster child for what had been right with America for those 12 years, the 50s and early 60s. His son may be equally representative of what is wrong with America today. The Rich feel that they are better, by virtue of having more. They feel privileged, rather than responsible. They manipulate and they use every tool to stay ahead; to grab more for themselves.
Hard work and a little luck might still earn you a million. A million isn’t what it used to be. 90 percent of my readers will never be rich. There is reason to believe that many of us (and I include myself) will never live in the comfort that our parents enjoyed. This cannot change until we start working together, all of us, rich and poor, to reinstate the American Dream to what it really was. It wasn’t about building mini-mansions and outdoing the neighbors. There was a time when it was about building communities and better opportunities for the children. That is when we were at our best. It isn’t socialism; it is civics. It is caring about your neighbor because you know that they care about you as part of the community. It is about working together to bring out the best in all of us and to build the best community, the best society, and the best nation that we can.
That requires us all to do our fair share, and admit how much we’ve relied on each other to get where we are. No one ever made a million dollars solely on his own efforts. No one ever built a library by his self. No one of us has the quality of life we enjoy without the inventors, the artists, the laborers, the salesmen, the lawyers, and the teachers who worked together throughout the course of history to build civilization to the point where we find ourselves. Are we going to allow all of that to slip into a new dark age, or are we going to rediscover the spirit of cooperation that made this country the hub of industry and invention for nearly 150 years?
*This quote was published in 2005s A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
and attributed to Steinbeck. It is not found in any of Steinbeck’s writings.