Voting for the American Dream
This election has the promise to be truly future changing. But only if the winner seeks a dramatic new course from the wrong-headed assumptions both parties have been operating under for a very long time. Our nation is the first in human history founded on the ideals of a government designed to constantly promote life and liberty so that all our citizens could pursue genuine happiness. This is the root of the real American Dream.
I was raised on a ranch where the ideals of rugged individualism and personal responsibility were emphasized. Those principles are the engine of a strong productive society. But it’s not all there is to it. As I’ve spent the past three decades helping leaders and organizations link fundamental values to their decisions it has become clear to me that the questions of the purpose of life and society must be answered or our unbridled individualism will degrade into selfishness and yes, greed.
The idea that our society exists only to enable its strongest individuals to amass power and wealth is a new spin on history’s oldest story. It’s always told by the people in power. The higher ideal our founders fought for is a society in which our common responsibility is to help people we aren’t related to, don’t even know, or more importantly the unborn next generation. It was based on the inspired belief that the best society is one in which all of us help ensure that the most people have a full opportunity to achieve security, dignity and contentment. This is the vision that inspires me.
I believe that the American Dream has little to do with money. The dream is not so much materialistic as it is spiritual. By that I mean the promise of America is the promise of an equal chance to make something of our lives. The freedom and responsibility to give our gifts and express our most noble desires. If that sounds corny, maybe it’s because we’ve become so cynical. That’s a shame. Our founders were anything but cynical. They were perhaps the greatest group of practical-idealists in history.
I was reminded of that when I read Dean Calbreath’s column in the San Diego Union Tribune titled “Spreading the Wealth.” Calbreath reminds us that Jefferson and Madison were insistent that significant financial inequality not become life-as-usual in America. They were escaping a smothering aristocracy in Europe and England and they knew that if the wealthy interests controlled the government, the banks, and the land a new aristocracy would pass laws to insulate themselves from competition and protect their wealth and their children’s wealth in a thousand different ways that would cripple opportunity for the rest of us. Neither Jefferson nor Madison were socialists but as Calbreath reminds us, Jefferson proposed “taxes could be used to reduce enormous inequality,” and Madison proposed policies to limit “extreme wealth” and promote a broad middle class. Calbreath also points out that none other than Abraham Lincoln instituted America’s first income tax. It only taxed the more prosperous. And Teddy Roosevelt proposed a graduated income tax and inheritance tax. The motivation of these great presidents was not to punish the hard working, inventive risk-takers and reward the slackers; rather it was to use the taxes raised to create a civil society where the infrastructure of universal education, roads, bridges, and later power, water, and communication would reinforce the force of liberty for all of us to pursue our own dreams.
Our great presidents were trying to create a society that presented the greatest opportunity for happiness and least avoidable suffering possible. They realized that liberty is not simply an absence of laws and regulations, but rather it is a system of laws and regulations that promotes the common good for us.
Today, those who believe that the opportunities for a well-educated suburban high school student whose parents can help him pay for college, buy a car or a down payment on the his first home and the opportunities for a fatherless inner city girl attending a violence-drenched high school are anywhere near the same are simply ignoring another inconvenient truth. And any self-made millionaire that thinks they achieved their wealth and advantage solely through their own hard work is as deluded as Donald Trump.
To create our best society those of us who are blessed to have had responsible and loving parents, good teachers and a dose of good fortune have the responsibility to use our considerable resources and innovative minds to provide an infrastructure of education and opportunity for those who aren’t so lucky. We all know direct handouts weaken and embitter the recipients of no-strings-attached charity. But that’s not what the real American Dream’s promise is.
Our real dream is based on a mutual promise to give everyone an honest chance at a decent life. But our pursuit of the common good has been lost in a chorus of “tough luck—it’s your own damn fault” social and economic policies. I am not proposing we bailout irresponsible behavior of anyone, rich or poor. Everyone should be responsible to clean up his or her own messes. But the self-serving belief that wealth is a sign of virtue and that financial struggles are proof of laziness is obscenely wrong. What kind of a society have we created? For me what I see is a society that has parachutes and bailout plans for the rich and well connected while everyone else gets pushed out of the airplane and told to roll when they hit the ground. This is not the best we can do. We need wisdom, morality, fairness and dignity rather than slogans, selfishness, self-righteousness and nastiness. To get it we’re going to have to vote for it, from the President to your City Council candidates.
When I look at the example of some of our best presidents, I am inspired. Inspired by their belief that the best society is one in which those with the most advantages and resources help strengthen the means to rise up the opportunities of all. For me that’s a renaissance of practical-idealism. Isn’t our best society one in which the most citizens are empowered to do their best and be their best? It’s time we vote for the American Dream.