The American Dream as political tautology
Generally, I like Boehner. But he and other conservatives—but many powerful liberals as well—apply the American Dream in a way that drives me nuts: they apply it tautologically, that is, in such a way that its logic (and the government policies intended to ensure it) can’t be disproved.
They do this by using their own success as proof that the American Dream is real.
Conservatives do tautology especially well using their own life stories. Take Boehner for example. He tells of mopping the floors of his family’s business as a teenager, of needing seven years to finish college because he had to spread out the cost, of sharing a tiny house with nearly a dozen brothers and sisters. And now he’s set to be Speaker of the House. It’s the American Dream: a sparse upbringing instilling a determined work ethic leading to financial, social, and political success.
In the context of Congress, the American Dream is a tautology. Why? Because everyone in Congress is, by definition, a success. “I’m living the American Dream,” every congressperson says. “I took over my father’s business, I rolled up my sleeves, and I made it thrive.” But when half of Congress are millionaires, how could they not say the American Dream is real? It’s all they’ve known. It’s all they see around them.
I don’t begrudge them their success. But I want to put forth the premise, and insert it into American Dream-logic, that our leaders have a sampling bias: failures don’t make it to Congress. There are thousands of Americans who worked even harder than Boehner, started off with even less, but didn’t have the breaks go their way and are now underwater on their mortgage because they bought at the peak of the market, or are out of work because their industry withered in the face of international competition. There are so many ways the world can fail people. Not achieving the American Dream is as often everyone’s fault, as a body politic, as it is any one individual’s.
There’s no way to disprove the American Dream when you ask a current congressman about it. But ask those people who are struggling with their mortgage, or who’ve been out of work for 99 weeks, or who do have jobs but work twelve hour days, seven days a week just for the sake of health insurance for their sick child—ask them if the American Dream is real, and you might get a more nuanced answer.