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The American Dream As We Know It Is Obsolete

Why progressives need to think beyond the mantra of creating a "middle class America."

In an era of insecurity, we all want security.

We want a decent home to call our own, healthcare to heal us when we are sick or old, education to improve our minds and job prospects, healthy food and clean water to nourish us, income to provide for all our needs and even some affordable luxuries, a career to give us social status and a sense of self-worth, and a pension for our golden years.

These seemingly universal desires define the post-WWII American Dream, and are still the reference point for both left and right. The “Golden Age of American Capitalism” from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s is commonly seen as the triumph of the middle class, a time when the fruits of a robust capitalist economy extended to tens of millions.

But today we are trapped in the fault lines of a violent global economy, and these dreams seem as archaic as waking up at dawn with the grandparents, children and cousins to milk cows, bake pies and plow fields.

However outdated the American Dream, organized labor and liberals desperately cling to it as they retreat in the face of the Republican and corporate blitzkrieg. In this war, the battlefield is social spending and the public sector, and for the losing side the situation is dire. (The critique that follows is not of the rank and file or all unions, but rather the dominant tendencies among many labor leaders and large national unions.)

For Mother Jones, it’s an “Attack on the middle class.  Jim Hightower describes it as “the corporate-GOP attack on the middle class.”  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, “It is our job to channel this Midwest uprising, this populist outcry into the large-scale creation of good jobs that can resuscitate America’s middle class, America’s people and our economy.” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, referring to Ohio legislation that strips public workers of collective bargaining rights, called it “a reprehensible attack on the middle class.”  According to 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, Gov. Scott Walker is trying to “ deny the American Dream to the vast majority of Wisconsinites.”

Really? The contention that the middle class is suddenly under attack – and by implication should be defended – is thoroughly flawed. For one, this trend goes back more than 30 years to the savaging of private-sector unionism and the social welfare state combined with deregulation, reloaded militarism and tax breaks for the rich. The current attack on public-sector unions and the remnants of welfare is just the latest stage.

Additionally, the attack on the public sector is by not an attack on the middle class as a whole. After all, the Tea Party movement, the right’s shock troops, is solidly middle class.

In their mind, we live in a capitalist meritocracy where everyone should be subject to the same chaotic, contingent and uncertain market forces. Its ideals are captured in the saying “Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.” The right rejects public-sector jobs that guarantee incomes, benefits, tenure and pensions because they violate the market, the wellspring of freedom and liberty.

No doubt this right-wing ideology is warmed-over Social Darwinism, hypocritical and would lead right back to the savage boom-and-bust cycles of the Robber Baron era and Dickensian England. (The Tea Party is generally quiet on the subject of the mortgage-interest deduction for homeowners that will cost the government an  estimated $131 billion in 2012.)

Nonetheless, the tens of millions of Americans embrace individualism are a very real force that is flexing its political muscle right now. Additionally, in terms of analyzing who is the middle class, it is much more those entrepreneurs, supervisors, managers, realtors, small-business owners and self-employed plumbers, carpenters, cooks, doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial planners and myriad other professions found in the Tea Party and the Republican Party than  blue-collar workers and public-sector employees who lack control over their work.

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