Is the United States a land of limitless horizons, where hard work and big dreams enable people of humble background to scale dizzying heights of privilege and power?
Or is this a society of slammed doors and blocked opportunities, of a trapped middle class and shattered hope, where ordinary people can only provide a better life for their children with the help of an activist government and dramatic new policies?
The Denver Democrats insist that both descriptions are true, and they fail to acknowledge the obvious contradiction in the two primary messages of their convention.
On the one hand, they want Americans to believe that we live in a dark, destitute moment in our history, with no chance for prosperity or progress unless a Democrat captures the White House.
On the other hand, they celebrate dozens of inspiring rags-to-riches stories (like those of the party’s sweethearts, Barack and Michelle Obama) proving that traditional American values still bring spectacular and gratifying results.
First, they suggest that ordinary Americans can’t possibly achieve their dreams without government help.
But then, sometimes in the very same speeches, they brag about their own classic American stories in which family and faith conquer every obstacle.
Consider the way the convention celebrated Michelle Obama’s story on its opening night. Her brother, Craig Robinson, emphasized the way their parents’ values brought about their success, saying “I can see how the person she is today, was formed in the experiences we shared growing up: working hard, studying hard, having parents who wanted more for us than what they had. And always being reminded that in this country of all countries—those things are possible.”
Michelle herself similarly emphasized her father’s contribution to her success: “He and my mom poured everything they had into me and Craig. It was the greatest gift a child can receive: never doubting for a single minute that you’re loved, and cherished, and have a place in this world. And thanks to their faith and hard work, we were both able to go to college.” She never mentioned that for both herself and her big brother, that college happened to be Princeton. “So I know firsthand,” she declared to the convention, “from their lives – and mine – that the American Dream endures.”
She made similar observations about her husband, the presidential candidate: “His family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”
Just a few minutes later, after celebrating their dual climb from penury to prominence, from want to wealth (the Obamas reported more than $4 million in income last year), she went back to talking about hardship and injustice and misery in America, recalling her husband’s distinction between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” She cited his lament that “all too often we accept the distance between the two, and settle for the world as it is –even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations. But he reminded us that we know what our world should look like. We know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like.”
If the Democrats celebrate the fact that “in this country – of all countries- those things are possible,” if they proclaim that parental “faith and hard work” can still deliver the American Dream, then isn’t it contradictory to decry “the world as it is”?
Many other speakers at the convention similarly tried to have it both ways --- praising the nation for its social and economic mobility, while suggesting that this openness and opportunity ended with their own families’ successes.
Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas recalled that her great-grandmother worked as a house maid for President William Howard Taft— and then her father, John Gilligan, preceded Taft’s own grandson as a Congressman from Ohio.
Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, recalled his tenement childhood in which he and his sister and their single mom lived with only two beds for the three of them, so they took turns sleeping on the floor – before Patrick went off to Harvard, Harvard Law. The Justice Department and the governorship..
Virginia Governor Mark Warner noted that he became the first-ever member of his family to graduate from college – before his own career at Harvard Law, and as a cell phone entrepreneur earning literally hundreds of millions of dollars.
Unfortunately, none of these convention speakers took the opportunity to remind their national TV audience that middle class and working class Americans could still replicate such impressive achievements – even after eight years of Bush.
Rather than encouraging the public to pursue timely dreams and apply timeless values with full confidence of success, the Denver Dems seemed to say that we made it, but you can’t --- unless you elect us and we provide government help.
Amazingly enough, in recounting their own stories of advancement and achievement, none of the speakers cited bureaucratic intervention or federal assistance as an element of success. Instead, they repeatedly invoked strong personal values – strong families, self-discipline, tireless effort, sacrifice – as the sole key to economic and educational progress.
By implication, these smug and preening politicians suggested that we’re brilliant and strong and special enough to make it to the top without government help, but most of the mere mortals who are watching us on TV will get nowhere at all unless we somehow use taxpayer money to assist them.
As to the claim that recent Republican misrule somehow put an end to the opportunities that middle-aged politicians enjoyed during the golden “Camelot” era of their youth, it’s worth remembering that the GOP has controlled the White House for 36 of the last 48 years. Michelle Obama, for instance, has lived the greater part of her 44 years on planet earth under Republican Presidents and, even more disproportionately, under Republican Governors of Illinois (30 out of 44).
The contradictions emanating from the Democratic convention—praising individual stories of opportunity and upward mobility, while decrying the general disappearance of opportunity and mobility-- actually mirror the most puzzling anomaly of recent public opinion polling. By overwhelming majorities, Americans describe the state of the country as dire and desperate, while similarly lopsided majorities rate their own status as successful, satisfying and optimistic.
Most citizens feel fortunate and confident and pleased with their lives, even while media alarmists and complaints from politicians have convinced them that the nation at large teeters on the verge of collapse and destruction. In other words, most of us know from our own experience that we’re doing well and moving ahead, but we’re illogically convinced that we’re exceptional in that regard.
In the same sense, the TV extravaganza from Denver asserts again and again that the Democratic Party is comprised of strivers and dreamers who’ve overcome all obstacles, working their way up from nothing to enjoy the most lavish blessings our society can bestow. At the same time that we thrill to these all-American stories, we’re reminded that we can never consider them representative or the nation at large.
In fact, the paragons on parade in the Pepsi Center – very much including both Obama and Biden—are, presumably, so unique in their history of unassisted self-improvement that we’re meant to conclude that they’re the only ones in the country ultimately fit to lead.