Obama and the Closing of the American Dream

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama spoke movingly of restoring the American Dream, the dream that allowed him to rise from poverty to Columbia University, Harvard Law School, and now, the Democratic nominee for President. In the meantime, the Republican party continue to try to turn their opponents’ strengths into weaknesses as they tap into voters’ resentments by suggesting that Obama might be too exceptional, too well-qualified, too “elitist” to be president. Aziz Rana recounts the history of Obama’s American Dream, and argues that many working class voters remember they once had a different dream, one that makes them skeptical of meritocratic success.

How can Barack Obama, a man who only recently paid off his student loans and who lives a relatively modest life in Chicago’s Hyde Park, a few blocks from one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, be more “elitist” than John McCain, the son of an admiral (not to mention the husband of a beer heiress), or more “elitist” than Hillary and Bill Clinton, a couple whose joint earnings since 2000 top 100 million dollars? Yet the E-word, and the charge that Obama is out of touch with the experiences of white, blue-collar workers, first leveled against Obama by the Clintons during the primary race, still hang heavy over his otherwise charmed campaign.

These charges stick around not because of the working-class credentials or commitments of Obama’s opponents, but because of a problem inherent in contemporary politics that neither party ever addresses, that highly educated professionals are the driving force, financially and politically, behind both major parties. The Democratic leadership particularly continues to present itself as the best hope for the working class, while sharing few economic interests and fewer cultural experiences (now rebranded as “values”) with the people it claims to represent.


Thus far, Obama has constructed his campaign around a reformist message backed by personal example. His life story suggests the possibility of success through meritocratic opportunities, individual educational achievement, and high-status employment. In his now famous speech on race following the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama described himself as proof of America’s greatness—the potential for any individual, no matter his racial or class background, to achieve the rewards of professional status. He emphasized that it is precisely his diverse connections and social experiences (from life in Indonesia to Harvard Law School) that situate him to protect the promise of equal opportunity:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.

By tying the professional ethos to the old aspirations of the civil rights movement, Obama unifies seemingly unconnected constituencies. It’s a story compelling to upper-status voters, students, and African Americans, and it has allowed him to create a powerful political coalition. Each group sees Obama’s message as proof of the continued vitality of equal opportunity.

It would be simplistic to view his support within the black community as merely a matter of ethnic solidarity; in fact, there has always been an element within the civil rights movement that devoted itself expressly to the opening of the professional world to blacks and other minorities. The best-known civil rights litigation of the 1950s involved segregated primary schools, but the earliest NAACP test cases focused on postgraduate professional study—especially law school.

One of the first serious victories in the NAACP legal strategy was 1938′s Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, which held that Missouri violated equal protection guarantees by failing to provide in-state law school education for black students. A decade later,  Sweatt v. Painter (1950) went further, holding that individuals could in no way be denied access to law school on the basis of race. For NAACP lawyers, equality was crucially about including blacks in the American project of social mobility—about winning for blacks the opportunity to achieve professional status through meaningful education and hard work. Obama’s personal story and political vision combine the hopes of both the professional elite and many in the black community, carrying on the aspirations of those early civil rights lawyers: that to aspire to become a lawyer would become a civil right.


Throughout our history there have always been multiple versions of the American dream. These accounts held in common the hope that hard work, discipline, and self-reliance would allow those recognized as citizens not only to improve their economic lot and achieve personal happiness, but to participate fully in political life. Today, however, only one version of the dream continues to make sense as a sustainable personal project. This is the dream exemplified by Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as by their former rivals Hillary and Bill Clinton—a dream of success through higher education and a life in professional work. It is a vision of social advancement that leaves little room for historically important narratives of blue-collar respectability.

This now dominant version of the American dream first emerged around the turn of the twentieth century in the wake of massive structural transformations. Industrialization, heightened bureaucracy, and corporate consolidation helped generate an economic and social need for professional groups such as business managers, lawyers, doctors, social workers, and teachers. Louis Brandeis, in his 1905 Harvard lecture “The Opportunity in the Law,” crystallized the account of freedom and independence that motivated these groups. Brandeis argued that lawyers and other professionals were specially situated to think in terms of right policy rather than divisive politics.

The essence of legal training was “the development of judgment,” in which lawyers learned the value of “patient research and develop[ed] both the memory and the reasoning faculties.” Moreover, legal practice, like all professional work, was marked by a high degree of autonomy and creativity. The lawyer defined his own tasks, ideally served a diverse and broad community, and became skilled at testing moral and political logic against empirical reality. Given these attributes, Brandeis hoped that the professional stratum would struggle to reconcile competing interests in defense of a nonpartisan public good. The professional class would protect the weak against the powerful, but only in ways that reduced conflict and allowed for the smooth functioning of collective institutions.

At the time when Brandeis was describing the promise of professionalism, three earlier accounts of the American dream not only survived but were real competitors for social preeminence. In Thomas Jefferson’s founding republican vision, yeoman farmers were “the most valuable citizens . . .   the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” To this Jeffersonian vision of “the cultivators of the earth,” a rapidly urbanizing nineteenth century added the small-business owner and the unionized industrial worker. The former aspired to the same freedom as the farmer by cultivating a shop instead of acreage; the latter strove (with mixed results) to achieve economic independence through collective political activity. In Brandeis’s time, these three versions of the American dream each still constituted a viable route to meaningful political and social life.

Today, by contrast, all such dreams are essentially foreclosed. The independent farmer lives on in the national imagination, but industrial farming has rendered him marginal both politically and socially. The quantity of small businesses begun each year suggests that the aspiration of having one’s own shop persists. Yet for the past half-century bankruptcy has been more likely than success. Statistics cited by Bush’s own Small Business Administration (SBA) show that more than half of small businesses close within four years and more than 60 percent within six. The title of the SBA article, “Redefining Business Success: Distinguishing Between Failure and Closure,” perfectly captures the difficulty of sustaining optimism, even for propaganda purposes, about the vitality of small-scale entrepreneurship. As for blue-collar workers, deindustrialization and the weakening of the labor movement have made the wage earner’s dream of middle-class respectability less and less tenable. Real incomes for working-class families have been declining for three decades, and highly skilled jobs once available to high school graduates are now memories from a previous era.

Abraham Lincoln, in his 1859 speech at the Wisconsin State Fair, concluded that the ideal of the small businessman or farmer was meant to be accessible to everyone:

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, says its advocates, is free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.

This classless universality—the hope that every American citizen, through free labor, could enjoy middle-class respectability, economic freedom, and the intellectual benefits of education—lay at the core of the dreams championed by farmers, small-business owners, and factory workers. In the nineteenth century, such universal rhetoric coexisted with the practical exclusion of blacks and women, who were considered to be beneath citizenship. Crucially, however, there was nothing intrinsic to farming, wage earning, or entrepreneurship that required the permanent separation of these groups from the promise of social respectability. Today, one can and should hope for an American dream that truly includes all Americans, and which recognizes and respects all the different types of labor the country needs. This would fulfill the promise of nineteenth-century aspirations.

Instead we have been left with the professional ideal, which values only certain types of work and thus implicitly disdains the rest. It is an inherently exclusive ideal, structured around a divide between those engaged in high-status work and those confined to task execution. The political theorist Iris Marion Young writes, “Today equal opportunity has come to mean only that no one is barred from entering competition for a relatively few privileged positions.” The idea of exclusivity is a necessary structural feature of professionalization. As a model for society, however, it validates an economic and cultural divide between those with meaningful access to social respectability and the vast majority of Americans, who remain consigned to low status and low-income employment.

This divide is antithetical to democracy. The professional and educational meritocracy justifies a basic hierarchy in which only those with professional status wield political and economic power. The democratic ideal of ordinary citizens collectively deciding the fate of key institutions has little in common with this logic—a logic that is aristocracy by another name. Precisely because all three alternative versions of the American dream were universal, all imagined work—whether industrial, agricultural, or entrepreneurial—as a training ground for democratic citizenship. Farmers and entrepreneurs developed the personal virtues necessary for political decision making. As for the industrial worker, the union was considered a continuous education in democratic control, and one’s role in its management and success were a miniature form of collective self-rule.

Barack Obama’s political ascent reiterates the current dominance of the professional ethic and one side of the civil rights movement. But there was always another side, which presented the movement as our most recent attempt to create a political community in which all citizens, including those truly marginalized, could assert power and achieve social respectability. Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  argued that our social problems were structural, the result of fundamental disagreements between the haves and the have-nots. These disagreements could not be papered over by talk of consensus, because the interests of the culturally privileged rested on continuing a politics of exclusion. As King often maintained, freedom requires making democracy a general way of life. This means more than integrating liberal society; it entails eliminating the basic economic and political hierarchies on which postwar liberalism rests. Today’s professional creed—while undoubtedly better than the Bush administration’s culture of cronyism, corporate profiteering, and rejection of expertise—remains a long way from these aspirations.

To the extent that Obama (and the Democratic Party leadership) refuse to offer more than the professional ideal, any reform agenda will fail to address the basic situation of most Americans. His comments about small-town voters at a fund-raising event in San Francisco were indicative: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and . . . the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Obama’s tone-deafness, as well as Clinton’s opportunistic denunciations—her aides quickly began handing out “I’m not bitter” stickers—spoke to a larger failing in the party as a whole. Political pundits like Tom Frank and Paul Krugman commonly ask why low-income constituents seem to vote less and less with their pocketbooks. This question suggests that the New Deal coalition was built primarily on a social welfare agenda. While such programs have been essential to providing millions of American with economic security, the heart of the New Deal lay elsewhere.

From 1932 until 1968, the Democratic Party rested on two descriptions of American life—the American dream as embodied by the rural farmer and the industrial worker. It gained sustenance from a respect for these accounts of middle-class achievement, economic independence, and democratic inclusion. Today’s party, however, has given up on establishing new forms of solidarity for nonprofessional citizens. All it has to offer is a lose-lose proposition: join the competition for professional status and cultural privilege at a severe disadvantage, or don’t join it at all. The party holds on to the social programs of the past, but in ever more truncated form. It presents a politics of consensus while ignoring the fact of basic division. If Obama hopes to save his party and to address the interests and experiences of working-class citizens, he will have to challenge the hegemony of the professional and with it the closing of the American dream. The question is whether he and those around him are interested in this task, or whether they are determined to recycle the failed homilies of postwar liberalism and meritocratic success.

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