Is the American dream dead? Senator John Edwards is betting that is. Out on the hustings some months ago, John Kerry’s vice president took every opportunity to clue Americans in to an ugly reality: The American playing field is tilted against you. Go ahead and toil your tail off. In the end, it’s a rich man’s world.
This bleak notion reached its hyper-populist apotheosis in the senator’s “Two Americas” stump speech. A media-dazzling paean to have and have-not stratification, it was designed to appeal to those downtrodden American souls inclined to believe that all that stands between them and a good life among the privileged elite is, well, the privileged elite.
“It seems today,” the senator would intone, “we have two Americas.” One America is, of course, inhabited by the bad guys: the selfishly, unapologetically rich. Everyone else lives in the other America. Tossing reality to the wind, Edwards would insist that “the wealthy and corporations pay less; working families pay more.” In conclusion, he would lament that America today is marked by an unjust divide: two health care systems, two governments, and two tax systems. You name it, Edwards saw two of it.
At the time, the trouble with this vision of “Two Americas” was that Edwards, a blue collar striver turned millionaire trial lawyer, was of two minds about it. Even as he trashed the president’s tax cuts and railed against the rich, Edwards broke with the centrist cum progressive Howard Dean to back tax relief for the middle class, and proposed tax breaks for corporations that kept jobs in the country. Even as he poured forth plangent tales about a monopoly on success by the powerful, he turned them into fiction with his inspiring life story. “I hope you agree with me,” he would say in his sweet Dixie drawl, “this is still a country where the son of a mill worker can go toe to toe against the son of a president of the United States.”
Today the “Two Americas” theme presents a more serious problem for the Democrats. Aside from its facile fleece-the-poor premise — far fetched for a nation where 10 percent of all taxpayers pay 65 percent of all federal income taxes — these two Americas exist only in the hearts of the Democratic Party’s faithful redistributionists. As a strategy for drawing non-aligned voters, it’s essentially worthless.
The reason is rather simple: Despite Edwards’ obituaries of the American dream — the compelling idea that with hard work and determination, anyone can achieve success — it remains alive and well for most Americans. A recent RoperReports/NOP World reports that one-third of respondents believe that the American dream is very much alive, and 47 percent say it is “somewhat alive.” Only 15 percent of those surveyed said that it is “not really alive.” And while 56 percent say it will be harder to realize the dream in the next generation, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman points out, that’s a drop from the early 1990s, when 72 percent were pessimistic. Perhaps more significantly, the American dream has an even stronger resonance among traditional Democratic voting blocks. A May survey of Hispanics by Zogby International, for instance, found that 90 percent agreed that “if you work hard, you will succeed in America.”
But if Americans persist in holding fast to the American dream, they nonetheless see roadblocks along the path to its fulfillment. Looming large among them are trial lawyers. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal conducted several years ago found that 53 percent of respondents believed trial lawyers were too powerful and exerted too much influence on government and politics. Democrats didn’t sweat those stats at the time. Now, with a Capitol Hill trial lawyer and his estimated $36 million net worth on the presidential ticket, they have cause for concern.
That means John Edwards, one half of the “New Team for a New America,” will have to develop a new theme for it. He should start by scrapping his vision of “Two Americas.” In truth, it was always a poor tack, thoughtlessly urging a split in the national fabric during a time war. That’s not to say that the idea of “Two Americas” can’t be consolidated into an appealing campaign pitch. Michael Barone, the U.S. News and World Report columnist, recently did just that.
Barone sees the country as basically fissured between “Hard” and “Soft” America. Soft America is the flabby underbelly of American society, a slacker’s paradise where spurning competition and actively shirking responsibility is the norm. Barone figures, conservatively in my view, that it comprises Americans until the age of 18. Hard America is cut from different cloth altogether. This is the America one grows into sometime between the age of 18 and 30. Hard Americans are meritocracts, eager to take on responsibility, steeled to meet competition. In Hard America, says Barone, “most figure out pretty quickly that how they do depends on what they produce.” From Hard America, one can only recede into soft America, crawling into a cushy bureaucracy.
That was always the greatest defect of Edwards “Two Americas” vision: it appealed to Soft America. To people who believe it is impossible to fight for success because the competition, whatever it may be, is always hopelessly unfair. Going by Barone’s metric, I’d wager that those who cheered the “Two Americas,” were either apologists for Soft America, or card-carrying members of it. Fortunately, most of America, passionately devoted to the American dream, seems to be in Hard America’s corner. And if Edwards intends to continue courting Soft America as part of the presidential campaign, he ought to keep in mind that it may not be old enough to vote.