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Parsing The American Dream | Political Waves

Archie Bunker. That's a name most of us recognize, the prototype for ignorance, bias and racism wrapped in an almost -- but not quite -- loveable package of human frailty. Norman Lear's creation of a 1970s American family as cultural battleground cracked open the mythology of sanitized television families that had been force-fed to the public through the 1950s and 1960s. For the first five years of All In The Family, the nation couldn't look away. The character of Archie was originally designed to remain unlikable, but Carroll O'Connor brought a vulnerability to the role that broke through the bigoted crust of a population mesmerized by its own image. In the end, Archie was allowed to evolve into a gentler creature, but it should be noted that as he did so, the public lost interest.

There's another name being bandied about these days, a name some of us recognize but few of us know much about. Herbert Hoover, our one-term 31st president, was a curious creature who combined both softly liberal and sharply conservative views. He was skilled at problem-solving and organizing, with a reputation for stringent micromanaging. He put his faith in volunteerism and business rather than in government sponsorship, carefully guarding both the GDP and the public coffers, and streamlining spending. He inherited a fiscal mess and let the banks fail in the early 1930s. When he finally decided the economy needed government stimulus, it was too little too late.

Hoover was an austerity president who believed that the public could pull itself up by its bootstraps. He staunchly refused to offer public aid when the Great Depression took root, even when nearly a quarter of the population were without work and homeless. Tent cities sprang up boasting his name: Hoovervilles. In one of those gaffes one is never able to live down, he defended his policies by announcing that the hobos were eating better than ever. Archie Bunker might have said something similar, and now you know why you're hearing Hoover's name in the news.

Award-winning economist, Paul Krugman, used the word Depression in a recent opinion piece and scared the children. We are not there yet, said Krugman, and if we go there, it will not be like the Great Depression of the 1930s. If we do not become more aggressive with stimulus, we may suffer the instability of the 1800s, known as the Long Depression, which included a number of panics, bubbles and financial downturns. The conservatives argue that this period was a time of great innovation and wealth building, that the GDP was growing during that timeframe. Of course, it's all in the family, isn't it? The nameless, faceless Gross Domestic Product did increase during that period of westward expansion, but what about the people? Big business families did very well for themselves. The average family struggled along in substandard living conditions, still hopeful for their version of the American Dream. This economic loop is not new to this continent, nor, sadly, are the conditions that prompt it. As always, it is driven by class war and corporate models that do not respect worker rights.

The American Dream was codified in our Declaration of Independence as inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was intended to avoid the class constraints of the European model, creating America as a place in which station did not limit opportunity. The very hope of achieving the rewards of personal labor became the American Dream for generations of citizens who may never have achieved more than subsistence; still, it remained possible for their children and grandchildren to achieve more than they had.

As industrialization created a more prosperous nation, the American Dream became idealized as a home of one's own and material comforts. The dream of home ownership was promoted by Herbert Hoover; it was also talked up by Bill Clinton and shouted out by George Bush, who bragged of his burgeoning home ownership statistics as a sign of successful economy. Now it looks like some 4 MILLION American Dreams will be going back to the bank by the end of this year.

The Archie Bunkers will blame unqualified shysters rooking honest bankers out of home loans. The Archies aren't happy these days. But as long as the GDP keeps edging up -- that number representing money exchanging hands -- the nation will keep 'growing,' and the Dow will keep humming and corporate profits will continue to boom, keeping hope for their American Dream alive. They don't seem to comprehend how little of that wealth will trickle down to them, or that their own jobs or homes might be in peril. Their leaders aren't much concerned with such issues, either, since keeping the rabble agitated against the current administration means selling out the national good for their own political prospects in the future. This is called 'starving the beast' all the way into office.

Now the people must be squeezed for more, punished for overreaching, and disenfranchised by overextended state governments to make up their losses. Herbert Hoover would approve. A balanced budget, even at the destruction of the public's life and fortune, was Hoover's mantra. Surely it isn't a surprise that he and Bush the Younger find themselves in the bottom five on the historians' list of effective presidents. They would likely be on the top of Archie Bunker's list, though. He would approve whittling down big government until it was paralyzed and on life-support, denying assistance to any who might need the welfare tit.

The American Dream of freedom, equality and opportunity has had to be fought for by every generation, and still does. We forgot those battles for a few decades, assuming those rights to be 'freebies' inherited as part of our citizenship. Our rights have always been attacked by those who sought to control us. In this go-around, we are being bled by corporate powers that were non-existent a hundred years ago. We weren't paying attention when repeated expansions to corporate power overwhelmed their original purpose, or when free markets turned our economy from its strong, industrial base to a nation of money lenders and manipulators. Now we suffer the commitment of the moneyed to keep the system in place, despite its dysfunction. The corporate machinery will continue to turn, unimpeded, unless we stop it, regulate it, and seal its jaws before it consumes its host.

If our American Dream still includes public schools and libraries, services and institutions designed for the betterment of humanity, equal rights and just laws, we need to start fighting for it. The distracting culture wars of recent generations have blinded us to the class war that we're losing. The Archie Bunkers of the world won't change, it's not in their character, but we must no longer tolerate their reality. Perhaps the real American Dream is not the one we seem to have recently lost but the one that was long ago determined on a system that provides for the protections of life and liberty, regardless of class or station. That original dream is still the one we need to secure in order to prosper and thrive.

And the pursuit of happiness?

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