President Obama has all but announced that this fall’s House and Senate campaigns should focus not on the collapse of American influence abroad, or on the continuing disaster that we know as Obamacare, or even on the apparent inability of his policies to create jobs, but on “income inequality.”
The mantra from the administration, like the rantings of the “Occupy” crowd and the new finger-pointing quasi-Marxist mayor of New York City, is that in today’s United States, it is impossible to get ahead unless one is born rich, works on Wall Street or finds some other way to profit from the misery of others.
Their rhetoric and proposed policies play on envy and remind one of the class warfare that has dominate European politics for so long.
Historically, betting on class warfare as a way to win a U.S. election is a bad bet. The United States is not Europe, and Americans have never been envious of the success of others. Americans have always believed in what almost from the beginning has been known as the American dream. The president is betting this is no longer true.
The belief that a political focus on “income inequality” and the politics of class envy will work is, in reality, a challenge to the very concept of the American dream.
Class envy and class warfare have never appealed to many Americans for the simple reason that most Americans of every background have always believed that through hard work, they or their children and grandchildren would achieve a freer, happier and more prosperous life than that enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.
It is this perception that attracts immigrants to the United States. They come seeking opportunity — economic opportunity and the freedom to make both economic and non-economic choices for themselves and their families.
They come from countries that offer little in the way of social mobility. Class is the great determiner in most of the world. Working-class and peasant parents produce working-class and peasant children.
Those fortunate enough to be born into the upper classes are coddled, largely secure and uncomfortable with the specter of men and women with ambition, drive and talent joining them at the top.
It’s been different in the New World. Class has always counted for far less. Sure, the wealthy had a head start, but yeoman farmers, folks who came as indentured servants and who arrived penniless believed in their bones that their dreams could come true. For millions over two centuries, they did.
As a result, Americans didn’t envy the family down the block or in the next neighborhood for their nicer homer or better car. They applauded its success, because they knew that sooner or later, they too would have a house as nice and a car as comfortable as they desired — all it would take would be hard work, discipline and the optimism of a people looking forward to a better and more prosperous tomorrow.
The politics of class worked in the countries from which many of these families came because it was extremely difficult in their native countries to rise on the basis of merit and hard work.
The affluence of one’s neighbors wasn’t something to which one could reasonably aspire. It was out of reach to most because of a system that virtually forced generation after generation to accept the fate of those who came before.
Under such circumstances, envy and even hatred of those who were born into better circumstances became almost natural and could be exploited by politicians of the left and right.
Democrats this year are betting that they may today be able to exploit envy in ways that have never worked here in the past. They are betting, in effect, that the average citizen’s belief in the American dream has weakened and, unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that they might be right.
A number of recent studies have concluded that it is more rather than less difficult to rise to the top or even to escape what we call poverty for the comfort of the middle class in the United States than it is in Canada and many nations of Old Europe.
Some recent polls indicate that this reality has led many Americans to doubt the reality of the American dream.A 2013 poll, for example, found that 41 percent of Americans think it is now “impossible for most to achieve the American dream.”
If Americans come to believe that the hope and optimism that have been a part of the American psyche since the nation’s founding are no longer justified, many will respond to the populist redistributionism championed by Mr. Obama and others.
The irony is that it has been the policies of these “progressives” that have made it more and more difficult to succeed in America. Individual initiative is stymied by regulations that make it more difficult to start or grow a small business.
Tax policies are designed not to grow the economic pie, but to divide up the wealth already created and make it difficult for business to expand or create jobs.
If the American dream is in trouble, it is because of the policies advanced by those who now argue that it is no longer valid.
Lengthy unemployment benefits that actually encourage people to drop out of the workforce and minimum-wage laws that make it more difficult for the young and poor to reach for the first step on the ladder of success are, like the rhetoric of progressive populists, attacks on the American dream.
To counter the politics of envy, Republicans must urge breaking down the barriers blocking upward mobility by encouraging policies that free the initiative and optimism of a people unique in world history. To do less would amount to the acceptance of a fundamental change in what this nation represents.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.