Competing visions of ‘the American dream’

COMPETING VISIONS OF ‘THE AMERICAN DREAM’…. One final thought on the “60 Minutes” feature on incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). This exchange has generated some discussion, but not for the reasons that might matter most.

Stahl: On election night, what made you sad, what got to you that night?

Boehner: I was talking, trying to talk about the fact that I’ve been chasing the American Dream my whole career. There’s some things that are very difficult to talk about. Family. Kids. I can’t go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can’t talk about it.

Stahl: Why?

Boehner: Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American Dream, like I did. It’s important.

If you watch this part of the interview, you’ll notice that Boehner could barely say these words through his tears. We’re generally not accustomed to seeing political leaders get this emotional, this often, and so Boehner’s inability to even talk about children in the abstract without breaking down in tears seems noteworthy.

But from where I sit, Boehner’s emotions are irrelevant, and the frequency with which he cries is of no real interest. What I found interesting about the exchange isn’t Boehner’s tears, but rather, his approach to “the American dream” itself.

For example, Boehner seemed entirely sincere about his affection for children. What he didn’t mention is that his budget plan would slash education spending, undermining those schools he can’t bring himself to visit.

But in a more general sense, the incoming Speaker shares his nostalgia for the past fairly often. He lamented not too long ago his notion that Democrats are “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” during the 1950s and 1960s.

What I’d really like to hear is what Boehner actually considers the “American dream” and what it was about the 1950s and 1960s that he likes and wants to restore.

As we’ve discussed before, putting aside what that era was like for women and minority groups, the striking thing about such pining is how extraordinarily liberal the country was, economically, during these good ol’ days. The top marginal tax rate was 90% (nearly triple today’s figure); union membership was 30% (more than quadruple today’s figure); the Republican Party, which still had plenty of liberals, endorsed all kinds of progressive ideas (spending projects, living wage); and the economy was heavily regulated — airlines didn’t even set their own prices.

The economic policies of the last few decades — policies Boehner embraces — have caused tremendous strains and economic anxieties. We’ve seen income redistribution moving sharply upward, and incomes flat-line. It’s the kind of conditions that make many working families feel as if the “American dream” is out of reach.

I suppose, then, that I’d love Boehner to expound on his vision. He wants to help guarantee the “American dream”? Great, so do I. What does his dream look like to him? Boehner pines for the days of he America he “grew up in”? Fine. What kind of policy agenda would he like to see to create that kind of society again?

Millions of middle-class families feel put upon and helpless. They’re working longer and harder, for less, and their optimism about the opportunities for future generations has all but disappeared. Boehner’s wistful memories about the ’50s and ’60s appear to be based on confusion — he likes an era in which New Deal policies created “economic security and opportunity” that were “widely shared,” thanks in part to progressive taxation and wages that nearly kept pace with the cost of living.

If Boehner and his allies want to go back to “the America they grew up in,” we can, but it’ll require a pretty sharp left-hand turn.