All Aboard the American Dream


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I love trains. When I was young I visited the Wenham Museum, down the street from my home in Hamilton, Massachusetts, and spent hours watching the locomotives go around the tracks while my sister analyzed the doll collection (she always returned to her ragged doll Susie at home). Today, I take the train from North Station, yesteryear’s gateway to New England, to my home in Hamilton. The commuter rail passes through the ancient industrial center of Lynn, the famed witch-town of Salem, and the birthplace of the American Navy, Beverly, before its gears grind to a halt in my equestrian town. It is 45 minutes that I look forward to with earnest. Not only does boarding the train mean that I am going home, to a comfortable place with a hot meal, but it also gives me the chance to stare out the window and wonder, as humanity flashes by my window, what the human struggle means for people, and how the American dream operates on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

The homes differ greatly from one another, but they are all tended to with care, the few exceptions being the broken down and abandoned homes just outside Lynn and Chelsea. Aboveground swimming pools and gas grills dot the backyards of the row houses of Revere, Veblenesque symbols of membership in the American middle-class. Indeed, the pool is not so much for swimming-after all, the swimming season on the North Shore lasts about 60 days-but is instead a symbol of struggle, the embodiment of a generation of hard work and thrift. The conspicuous consumption of the post-war consumer age has replaced a fulfilling vision of the American Dream with a vacuous conception of liberty and success. No longer is the rallying cry to make it in the New World in a new way-your way-but rather to make it in the New World via the tired, trodden path of swiping credit cards and compiling symbols of status.

Some of the most tired rhetoric of American politics is wasted on fear-mongering about the fate of the American middle-class. One reason why the rhetoric is empty is because it is fundamentally incorrect in its assumptions about the middle-class being “squeezed.” Indeed, the tax burden paid by the American middle-class has steadily decreased since 1960 and the children of middle-class Americans have significantly higher access to higher education-the ticket to the moneyed class-than the rest of the world. Thus, while many politicians pragmatically decry the vast accumulations of wealth by the top .1% of Americans, that accumulation has not, contrary to popular belief, resulted in middle-class angst. No mater what Joe Biden tells you, he is not sitting down at his kitchen table worrying about paying essential bills or buying his grandchildren back to school clothes. Simply put: the middle-class in America need not worry about famine, disease, or overcrowding. Times are tight, but the American middle class is by no means headed for extinction.

A second and more important reason the rhetoric of the middle lass squeeze fails to inspire is because while we play Veblen’s game, we simultaneously find ourselves unhappy-incapable of drawing pleasure from it even if we are keeping up with the Joneses. We find that victory at the consumer game-a game to which we’ve pledged our allegiance-is utterly unsatisfying. This revelation enrages us, for our entry fee to the game was sacrificing part of ourselves-our own conception of the American Dream and the possibilities of pursuing happiness outside the malls and independent of their fruits. But we can do little to escape the game we have created for ourselves. Indeed, even in our most desperate hour, when we searched for something meaningful and satisfying to cling to and enlisted ourselves for national service with fervor unseen since Pearl Harbor, our President could muster little more than telling us to go to the malls and shop.

If the consumer game is so utterly unsatisfying and the middle-class is actually faring adequately in the U.S., why do politicians continue to trot out the same horror stories of middle-class life every four years? The answer may be simple: everyone in America believes or wants to believe he is middle-class. To be working-class, or God forbid, “poor,” is a mark of shame. This is partly a result of the unique cultural history of the US and partly a construction of post-war consumer capitalism, as detailed by Lizabeth Cohen, history professor at Harvard College, in A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.

Culturally, the do-it-yourself legends and rags-to-riches stories that permeate the American psyche from an early age (think the curbside lemonade stand) convince us that anyone can do anything in our nation. Barack Obama introducing Joe Biden as a “scrappy kid from Scranton” was just one more example of this phenomenon. The psychological impact of this cultural motif, somewhat ironically, is that if anyone can do anything and you have not done anything you must not be anybody. In comparison, therefore, to an aristocratic nation with less social and economic mobility, there is a unique pressure to succeed in America because, at least in theory, the doors of success are available to all.

Consumerism also leads people to identify as middle-class even if they are not by linking material goods with image. Thus, the poor, wealthy, and in-between are all able to dupe themselves into believing that we are a homogeneous blend of middle-classmates when nothing could be further from the truth. The preppy kid from Collegiate wears “vintage” clothing and worn-in hats to escape his wealth, while the kid from PS 232 buys hot watches and authentic baseball caps to project an image of affluence. But when the kids go home at night and the image is exposed as an illusion, there is nothing they can do but be swallowed by the reality that lies on the other side of fantasy.

There is no doubt that millions of people are struggling in America. Many go to bed hungry, cannot afford their rent, and live paycheck to paycheck if they are lucky enough to have paychecks at all. But let us not dupe ourselves into thinking that these souls are members of the American middle-class. They are, as William Julius Wilson wrote, the American underclass. This group is consistently ignored by the political process and, perhaps as a result, garners no sympathy from the polity. And in America, we cannot call ourselves free men if there continue to be men shackled by poverty and hopelessness. This is the silent story of the American underclass. They have been left behind on the station platform as the train speeds by.

Andrew L. Kalloch is a 3L?and Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record

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