Many thanks to June and Cathy for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the first part of Who Stole the American Dream ? by Hedrick Smith.
Who Stole the American Dream? is a provocation and a call for action. Hedrick Smith clearly answers the question he poses in the title of his book and offers remedies.
As someone who participated in the movements of the 60’s and who has continued the effort to expand democracy, even as a counter effort to limit its “excesses” was launched by American business and political leaders, Mr. Smith’s description of the period both validated my experience and provided new ways to think about it.
There are many ways to respond to the thesis of the book; here are a few of the observations that it stimulated:
1) While the great compression and virtuous circle were associated with and fueled the growth of an American middle class, it has been my understanding that much of our economic growth derived initially from our position as ‘the’ postwar industrial power and subsequently from the huge increase in deficit spending associated with the war in Vietnam. In the 1970’s this period ended and we entered a downturn that had many economic expressions, e.g., in 1971, the US pulled out of the Bretton Woods accord; the 1973/1974 oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis.
2) For me and others of my generation, the 60’s were a revolt against the false notion of America as one big family in which all were advancing on a rising tide. The struggles that we were a part of were an effort to recognize and bring those who were left out of the “family” into full participation in our economy and history; and possibly ironically, it was, as well, a repudiation and challenge to the hegemonic notion of the family and materialism that many of us felt had distorted so many lives.
3) I was unaware of Lewis Powell’s brilliant and clarion call from the conservative right. As I read his memorandum it brought to mind the founding document of the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies, by Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki. I do not know if there was any connection between Powell and the Trilateral Commission, headed by David Rockefeller who represented the liberal wing of international capital. However, as Mr. Smith points out, it was a Democratic Congress in 1978 and Carter administration leadership, e.g. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cyrus Vance, Walter Mondale, Andrew Young (also leaders of the Trilateral Commission) which was responsible for much of the legislation and policy which Mr. Smith identifies as key to producing, as well as understanding, “who stole the American Dream”. In fact, if one were to identify a seminal document which identifies both the economic and political problems to be addressed by American (and international) business leaders, one could also point to this document and this grouping.
4) It has become fashionable to identify two Americas (“tale of two cities”) based on the growing inequality of wealth. This is a crucially important lens through which to look at our current situation. However, I believe that understanding our country’s crisis requires a broader canvas which includes race, warfare, global expansion and international capital.
5) Although there are countries in the tradition of western capitalism such as Germany which, for the present, have chosen a different and more progressive economic and social path, there are also other capitalist countries, such as China, which may equally represent the future of a new capitalist order. Are there implications here for the future of the American Dream?
6) As a 16 year old, I was a member of the “gentle army” that gathered at the Washington Monument in 1963 and I returned there many times not only in support of civil rights but also to protest the war and in support of the poor people’s army. While gains were made, 50 years later we can see that many of our hopes for a better world have been dashed and in significant ways, we failed in our efforts. Our two party political process has become ever more self-serving and insulated. Of all the obstacles to addressing the serious problems our country faces, I believe that the Democratic and Republican parties are the major roadblocks to the “American Dream”. Americans, rich as well as poor, are diminished by this bipartisan monopoly on power.
Jeff Aron has been active in independent political efforts in New York City and nationally since the late ’70’s. He is a passionate supporter of IndependentVoting.org.