The Existential Crisis We Face

I am always interested when great writers pontificate about the death of the American dream. Frank Rich is the latest to do so in an article titled, “In 2008, Americans Stopped Believing in the American Dream.”

The mood in America is arguably as dark as it has ever been in the modern era…It’s not hard to pinpoint the dawn of this deep gloom: It arrived in September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the Great Recession that proved to be a more lasting existential threat to America than the terrorist attack of seven Septembers earlier…

That loose civic concept known as the American Dream — initially popularized during the Great Depression by the historian James Truslow Adams in his Epic of America — has been shattered…Dead and buried as well is the companion assumption that over the long term a rising economic tide would lift all Americans in equal measure. When that tide pulled back in 2008 to reveal the ruins underneath, the country got an indelible picture of just how much inequality had been banked by the top one percent over decades, how many false promises to the other 99 percent had been broken, and how many central American institutions, whether governmental, financial, or corporate, had betrayed the trust the public had placed in them

There is a lot to be said in support of what Rich has written about: the fact that the financial crash of 2008 affected a lot of people in a very profound way. But this analysis suffers from the same thing  Thomas Edsall’s did last week. We have to clarify that the “existential threat” he describes is the one that killed the American dream for white men. It is true that the economic crash was felt by everyone’s pocketbook, but the idea that “a rising economic tide would lift all Americans in equal measure” hadn’t been proven to be true for women and people of color since long before the Great Recession.

By suggesting that the dark mood engulfing America began in 2008, Rich argues that it didn’t all start with Donald Trump.

It would be easy to blame the national mood all on Donald J. Trump, but that would be underrating its severity and overrating Trump’s role in creating it (as opposed to exacerbating it). Trump’s genius has been to exploit and weaponize the discontent that has been brewing over decades of globalization and technological upheaval.

Rich is reinforcing a narrative that has taken hold for a lot of people in this country. But there are some important things that it doesn’t take into account. For example, back in 2011—three years after the Great Recession—Ellis Cose introduced us to the new American optimists.

African-Americans, long accustomed to frustration in their pursuit of opportunity and respect, are amazingly upbeat, consistently astounding pollsters with their hopefulness. Earlier this year, when a Washington Post–Kaiser–-Harvard poll asked respondents whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites.

Apparently it wasn’t just African Americans.

The AP-NORC analysis of data from the General Social Survey, a long-running biannual survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, found just 46 percent of whites say their family has a good chance of improving their living standard given the way things are in America, the lowest level in surveys conducted since 1987. In contrast, 71 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics express optimism of an improved life – the biggest gap with whites since the survey began asking.

Either the Great Recession didn’t kill the American dream for blacks and Hispanics, or they recovered an awful lot faster than the rest of us. My theory has always been that black and brown people developed the ability to hope against the odds in a way that too many white people in this country still haven’t.

An alternative narrative that takes all of that into account is one in which it was not just the Great Recession that sent white men into such a funk. It was a combination of that, along with several other things that Tim Wise called the “perfect storm of white anxiety.”

Another way of looking at this is to think about the fact that Donald Trump felt the need to attack LeBron James and Don Lemon just as the basketball player was opening a school for at-risk kids in his home town. This tweet captured exactly what that was all about.

When I read that, it struck me that the same description applies to another man Trump seems to resent in the same way: his predecessor Barack Obama. No one captured that dynamic better than Jonathan Chait when he described his reaction to the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a whiteperson.

Calm, dignified competence is one of the best descriptors of Barack Obama that you’ll ever read.

That unforgivable crime doesn’t just apply to people of color. As professionals in the field of domestic violence have told us for decades, the most dangerous time for a woman is when she stands up to her abuser and credibly threatens to leave.

Today, whether it is in sports, entertainment, politics, or business, white men are having to confront that unforgivable crime more and more every day.

I agree with Rich that we are facing an existential threat in this country. But it is not limited to a reaction to the Great Recession. The forces of dominance and control are being challenged and those who feel threatened are lashing out in every way imaginable to hold onto their position. It is up to those of us who see these changes as positive to name what is happening, not be cowered by their threats…and prevail.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.