American homes today are triple the size they were in the 1950s. And with more space has come more stuff. But a growing number of advocates say it is time to simplify. The lure of the minimalist lifestyle – and what it could mean for our health and happiness.
Political gridlock and economic anxiety have taken their toll on American optimism. Different perspectives on what the American Dream means today.
- Michelle Bernard founder, and president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and an MSNBC political analyst.
- Dante Chinni Director of the Jefferson Institute's Patchwork Nation project and online correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; author of "Our Patchwork Nation."
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow, The Brookings Institution, columnist, Washington Post and author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right" and of "Stand Up Fight Back."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The doomsayers are proclaiming ever more loudly that America is in decline. They point to our fading economic power and the waning sense of America as a land of opportunity. Joining me to talk about whether this is actually a terminal condition or perhaps just a passing ailment: E.J. Dionne from The Brookings Institution and The Washington Post, Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center for Women and Dante Chinni from the Jefferson Institute's Patchwork Nation project.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Everyone is talking about this, including the president of the United States.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMASo a lot of the folks who have been down in New York and all across the country in the Occupy movement, there is a profound sense of frustration about the fact that the essence of the American dream, which is if you work hard, if you stick to it, that you can make it -- feels like that's slipping away. And that's not the way things are supposed to be. Not here. Not in America.
REHME.J. Dionne, how bad off are we?
MR. E.J. DIONNEWell, I think it's a -- more than a passing ailment, but short of a terminal condition. I should begin by saying that my favorite line on America, which many of your listeners will be familiar with, was Winston Churchill's. He once said Americans always do the right thing after first exhausting all of the other possibilities. And we spent a lot of time lately exhausting all the other possibilities. I think the notion that we are in terminal decline actually speaks to what a high opinion we have of ourselves.
MR. E.J. DIONNEWe've gone through these bouts of declinism in the past. I think this feeling is particularly strong now for a couple of reasons. One is we obviously are in a very deep economic downturn. Two, as the president's clip suggested, we've had a long rise in economic inequality, which has left a lot of Americans feeling that they can't do as well as they did in the past, and their kids won't do as well as they did in the present.
REHMGive me some examples of that, E.J.
REHMOf the expectations versus the realities.
DIONNEWell, for example, if you think back on the income average Americans got -- for example, we had a lot of well-paying blue-collar work. People had enough income that they didn't have to go deeply into debt. If you want to look at one of the causes of this crisis we're in, it's that a lot of Americans, in order to keep up their standard of living, that first they put at least two people in the household into the labor market. Sometimes they took a third job.
DIONNEThat didn't quite make things work, so they had do go to into debt to maintain a standard of living. That, I think, is sort of a symptom of what's wrong and a real problem in people's lives. But I don't think this is or has to be terminal. Yes, there are new competitors to us in the world: China, India, I think, someday Brazil. The world will be reconfigured. But I never thought we would be the world's only global superpower.
DIONNEI don't think that was ever in the cards, so I'm not worried about new competitors in the world. We just need to do better if we're going to maintain our influence, but I actually think we still can do it.
REHMDante Chinni, you've been traveling around the country. What are you hearing from the people?
MR. DANTE CHINNIWell, I think it's a good point to say that we're not in a terminal state of decline, which just sounds pretty awful. But what we're definitely in -- we're going through a period -- this is a pretty big shift we're going through. And I do think that they're -- the stuff that E.J. was talking about, particularly, you know, manufacturing jobs, a lot of these things are gone, and they're gone away for a while. And it's not just that we're losing jobs to China and Brazil and India. We're losing them to automation.
MR. DANTE CHINNIAnd, you know, so there are fewer and fewer of these jobs that were good jobs for people who didn't have a lot of skills and education. It allowed them to have a high standard of living and live the life they wanted. You know, we still have less than 50 percent of the population with even, you know, an associates degree, right? So what we really have to do is figure out a way to get all these people educated for what's coming next because you're going to have to have more education. You're going to have to have more skills.
MR. DANTE CHINNIAnd that gets increasingly difficult because college tuition costs are going up. I feel that we're at a point where we kind of have to look at all the things we have, all the structures we kind of have in the U.S. and determine whether or not we need to change them and how we need to change them because, look, the last 30 years, we have seen a decline in -- we did this with Patchwork Nation.
MR. DANTE CHINNIWe looked at -- well, we break the country in these 12 different county types, and we looked at what median household income was in these 12 types in 1980 and in 2010. And in seven of the 12, adjusting for inflation, at a decline. That's a serious problem. That's a serious problem.
REHMMichelle Bernard, at least we can say, can we not, that in terms of justice, racial discrimination, advancement in understanding of our differences, we've made some progress, have we not?
MS. MICHELLE BERNARDI would say that we have made enormous progress and that, to me, the biggest indicator of that is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and arguably, you know, the leader of probably the most important country in the world. So that is -- that shows a great deal of racial progress, one of which I'm very excited about.
MS. MICHELLE BERNARDOne of the questions that many African-Americans and others have to ask themselves, though, is the fact -- when we look at the political polarization that the country has now, is this the natural confluence of things or is -- or are we more politically divided because people resent having an African-American president? It is a -- it is something that you have to ask. We have never seen anything like this before, the political divisiveness, the very open and honest animosity between the two parties.
MS. MICHELLE BERNARDSometimes you sit back and you have to watch yourself. If you put yourself in the mind of an independent, for example, you sit back and you say to yourselves, I am doing everything that I can to provide for my household, to take care of my family. I am doing my job. Our elected leaders, arguably, are doing nothing. They are not doing their job. And you have to sit back and eventually say to yourself, are we -- are our political leaders willing to allow the country to fall apart simply to get Barack Obama out of office?
REHMAs an African-American yourself, do you hear that issue being raised within the African-American community over and over again, that question? Is it because he is an African-American?
BERNARDAbsolutely. This is something that is widely discussed among African-Americans. I would venture to guess it at almost any socioeconomic level because, for example, let's take the jobs bill as an example. When the Congress votes no to the job bill -- jobs bill as a whole, you say, okay, they voted no. But when you break it up into pieces and the answer over and over again is no, no, no, no, you have to sit back and say to yourself, well, this is not only harming African-Americans.
BERNARDIt's not only harming Hispanics. It's not only harming communities of color. This is basically going to -- could possibly destroy the entire nation. Why else would someone do this if it wasn't driven by racial animus? It doesn't mean that it's driven by racial animus, but I think it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask.
REHME.J. Dionne, thinking about racial animus or political dysfunction, where do you come out?
DIONNEWell, we have some racial animus. We have some political dysfunction. I mean, my view of the political dysfunction is that what you've had is a Republican Party and a conservative movement overtaken by a new kind of radicalism. My -- I think we have lived for about 100 years within the framework of a long consensus where we believed in a balance between the public and private sector.
DIONNEDwight Eisenhower, great Republican president, engaged in two of the biggest investment programs in our country's history for interstate highways and the National Defense Education Act, which sent millions of people, including me, to college. And now you have a group of Republicans who really want to bring us, I believe, back to the politics of the gilded age, before the progressive era. Now, they believe that, on principle, this is -- sounds like an attack.
DIONNEI don't -- I mean, obviously, I profoundly disagree with them. I think they're doing it on principle, but I think this is causing enormous problems for the country. And it's making it very difficult to reach consensus.
REHMEarlier this month, we asked some listeners to tell us on Facebook, to tell us their thoughts on how life has changed. And here you have Julie. She's a full-time working mother of two who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
JULIEMy father immigrated to this country in the 1950s from Palestine. When he arrived in America, he had $11 in his pocket. He found a job that required little English and put himself through college. He joined the Army and eventually NASA as a computer engineer. Though he never earned more than $50,000 a year, my mother was able to stay at home with six children and put a home-cooked dinner on the table virtually every evening. Of six children, four of us received college degrees, and I went on to graduate school. We were an average middle class family.
JULIEAnd yet the things that were available to us then seem to be only the purview of the rich today. The majority of American families must have two incomes in order to afford just the essentials, even something as basic as a nutritious meal. Americans are working harder than ever today. Only they are not getting ahead like my father was able to do. In fact, they're barely staying afloat. I believe that every American should have a real opportunity to move up the economic ladder, but the American dream, as it once existed in this country, is dead.
JULIEThe hardest working Americans are the ones that recoup the least reward in this country, and Washington should be very, very ashamed.
REHMAnd that was Julie, a full-time working mother of two. She lives in Charlotte, N.C. She joined us on Facebook. We'll take a short break now and be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking this morning about the extent to which the American dream remains alive in the minds, in the lives of people living in this country. And I'm interested as to, Dante Chinni, why you think the pain is felt so greatly.
CHINNIWell, in a way, it's a loss of what people thought -- it's a little bit of what President Obama is saying. It's a little bit -- it's a loss of kind of one of the central aspects of what it is to be an American, right? I mean, theoretically, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. And that is -- you know, it does feel like a lot of that's gone now. And I'll tell you, there are some places in this country where I go to these places -- they are just -- there is nothing for them in what's coming down the road. They're headed for really hard times.
REHMMichelle, why is or why does it seem that the pain is so unevenly spread?
BERNARDWell, because for people who are trying to climb up the ladder, it is as if you have been stuck in this area, this purgatory for quite some time. So if you are someone who is -- who figures out what the rules are and you are living by the rules and you still can't get ahead, you absolutely feel that pain. If you are someone who is suffering as a result of the economic downturn -- we know, for example, that the economic downturn affected men a great deal more harsher than it did women.
BERNARDSo, all of a sudden, we have women who are out there who, for example, might have been able to be a stay-at-home mother and can no longer do that because they've got to find a way to contribute to the household. And then you literally -- you turn on the television, you turn on the radio -- and I hate to keep going back to politics -- but you look at our national government, and you say it is so overwhelmingly broken.
BERNARDWhy should politics now become a permanent vocation when you can't do anything to help the people who voted you in find ways to get a better education, find ways to take care of their families? You know, politicians -- our nation is broken politically. Politicians are not honest with us. For example, I would love to see the politician who would go to Detroit, for example, and say manufacturing, as we knew it, is not coming back to the United States.
BERNARDSo we have a moral obligation to educate our children, and all of our children, in a way that they are prepared for the jobs of the 21st century. Right now -- here's the answer to your question, Diane. This is a long way around it. Right now, debt -- your zip code is your destiny. And that is not what the American dream is about. As a daughter of immigrants, I will tell you, like the lady who called in earlier, my parents emigrated here from Jamaica.
BERNARDAnd if you look at people who come from other countries, we still believe in the American dream. We still believe that if you leave your country and you come to the United States and you get a good education and you work hard, there is nothing that you absolutely cannot achieve. But in order to do it, you have to have political institutions that work. And our national government does not work.
DIONNEWell, there are a couple of things. One is I am all for expanded education and education opportunities, and especially, I think, for a year or two after high school that can actually prepare people for jobs that are out there. But, you know, we, as a country, used to provide a decent standard of living to people who did not have lots of formal education. And there are some Americans who are going to -- who are very much oriented to school and others who are better off and are more comfortable picking up skills along the way. We're not doing well by that second group of Americans.
REHMAnd there are also college graduates, let's not forget, who cannot find work.
DIONNEExactly. Absolutely right. And in this circumstance, there are two things I think that went on at the same time. On the one hand, there was a magic moment after 1945. I mean, our competitors had been destroyed by World War II, whereas World War II built up our economy. So we were -- we had, I think, if I remember right -- correct me, listeners -- 50 percent of the world's GDP at one point.
DIONNESecondly, you had large parts of the globe excluded from the global labor market. We are adding about 2 billion people to the global labor market, which puts working people in a much weaker bargaining position. Now, all that's happened, as we pursued policies, it made things worse. We have shifted the rewards, I think, away from labor and manufacturing and toward finance. We can't go back to the manufacturing of the past. Though, I do think there is some manufacturing in our future if we want to make it so.
DIONNEAnd we pursued tax policies that cut the taxes on the very wealthy, particularly people who earn their income from capital gains. And so our European friends -- Lord knows they have a slew of problems, but they have not seen the same inequality or the same decline in upward mobility rates that we have.
CHINNIBut in a way -- I completely agree with what E.J. said. But in a way, the problem is that all -- it is that we -- that post-World War II moment we came to understand -- I really do think a lot of people in this country came to understand this is just reality. This is the way it is. And, you know, times changed, and that's gone now, that the rules -- and I do think a lot of the rules we've set up were created in this post-World War II economic world. And it's gone now. And I don't -- and I completely agree.
CHINNILook, I think -- to some of what Michelle was saying, those people in Detroit, they know those jobs are gone. If a politician went there and made that statement, they would be respected for saying that.
BERNARDFor telling -- what I wanted to say is that we have a habit -- when we talk about the state of the American dream, people have a habit of looking nostalgically at years prior, before 2011. From an African-American perspective, I don't want to go back to 1945. I don't want to go back to 1960 or '70, or even '80 for that matter. You know, things were -- as difficult as things are in the African-American community now, with the unemployment rate hovering at about 16 percent, for example, no one wants to go back to a time.
BERNARDThere was nothing glorious about having to drink water from a separate water fountain or going to a separate and unequal school. There is absolutely nothing in that image that is nostalgic for African-Americans. And for -- and particularly in communities of color, where your zip code is your destiny, all of us truly believe that what is holding us back more than anything else is not necessarily racial discrimination, but an inability to get an equal education.
BERNARDYou know, you -- we talk about Brown v. Board of Education, and there was so much -- so many people who were so excited when the nation celebrated the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. But today, our schools are still separate. They are still unequal. It is not based on race.
REHMEven more segregated.
BERNARDEven more. And, you know, even if you are someone who's not necessarily college-bound, we -- I believe that, as a nation, we have a moral obligation to make sure that every child can read, can write, can go to community college, can go to vocational school. If you don't have a basic platform, the American dream is really a cruel joke.
DIONNECould I say I always appreciate warnings against nostalgia? So Michelle is absolutely right. The good old days are never as good as we remember them. And some groups, obviously to African-Americans, were excluded. However, I do think that when you go back to that 1945 period, it was the ethos of the country and the sense of a boom, the appreciation that African-Americans had fought, died for the country in World War II. It created a circumstance in which the civil rights movement could gain purchase.
DIONNEAnd it started before the war with A. Philip Randolph and the -- his quest for equal employment opportunity. But it really took off -- Brown happened nine years after the end of the war. So I do think that the progress we made on civil rights and equality was linked intimately to the progress we had made on the economic front and in a sense of we're all in this together. I think both the Depression and the war broke down some of the barriers that had existed between us before. Having said that, it took a lot of work by the civil rights movement to get there.
REHMAnd as I said earlier, we did record listeners giving their views of how life is different today from what it was perhaps for their parents. We heard from them on Facebook. Our producer, Nikki Jecks, went out and recorded them. Let's hear from Karen, who lives in St Louis, Mo. with her husband and daughter.
KARENWhen I got married in 1976, jobs were scarce. But I found a low-paying teaching job in a parochial school, and we bought a tiny house for $22,000. I changed careers and quickly moved up in the world through hard work, long hours and some great real estate moves, such as selling the little house three years later for $47,000. I survived breast cancer at age 31. I lost my job after another bout with cancer. My husband's union was broken up, and he then got fired after a heart attack.
KARENHe quickly found a new job, but there were no benefits. Because we were responsible citizens, we sacrificed to pay high-risk health insurance premiums rather than going without insurance. Our savings are gone. We were rewarded for our diligence by being ineligible for the federal program, which requires that one be uninsured for six months. My husband lost his job last week.
KARENSo things weren't great in the 1970s, but there was hope for those who worked hard. Now, at our age and with our health problems, that doesn't matter, and we have little hope. Our daughter graduates in May. We are using her college fund to pay for insurance.
REHMDante Chinni, is the gap between rich and poor likely to narrow if the economy improves?
CHINNIYou know, it'll probably -- look, an improved economy will necessarily -- will make things somewhat better. It has to. Going from being -- not having a job to having a job is -- makes a difference in people's -- makes a big difference in somebody's life. But, you know, the divide is not really going to get -- is not going to get a heck of a lot narrow, more narrow because there just -- there's nothing to pull the bottom up anymore.
CHINNIWhat -- I mean, those jobs -- these -- it's great. Both of these things that you read, you know, from Facebook, they start off with the person getting this job…
CHINNI...that leads to something else.
CHINNIThose jobs, I just -- I don't know if they're there. And I think, even more important, I think a lot of times that first job might still be there, but the next step up the ladder is gone.
REHMBut, you know, I can so relate to what Karen said, getting married in 1959, buying the first house for $23,000, selling it seven years later, five years later for $27,000. But then, you know, I stayed at home, cared for two children. My husband had a salary of $13,000, but you could do it back then. She's using every penny of the savings they had for college to pay medical expenses.
CHINNIGo ahead, E.J.
DIONNEWhat I want to say is it's worth paying attention to how much health care played role in that story.
DIONNEThere were a lot of people around, including some of his supporters, who knocked the president for devoting so much energy to the health care law. Getting everyone a guarantee of health insurance that they can afford would not revolutionize the country, but it would sure make things better. There is no...
DIONNE...wealthy democracy in the world that puts people through what the woman and that caller and her husband had to go through. It's crazy. We can't do it that way. And, obviously, our health care costs have risen faster than the costs in any comparable country as well. That story was about a lot of personal tragedy, but, boy, did health care play a big role in it.
REHME.J. Dionne of The Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, much of our program this morning came out of an article published this month in Foreign Affairs magazine by George Packer. And for all of you, I recommend you take a look at that article. I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Hickory, N.C. Good morning, Josh.
JOSHGood morning. How are you?
JOSHI want to go back to what the young lady said about the president being an African-American, which, at the start of his term, I remember politicians and everyone saying that they just wouldn't support him. It wasn't going to happen. They weren't going to support him no matter what happened. And now, when I talk to friends, it's very hard to even have civil discourse with someone because when I -- you bring up anything, they'll just speak about the health care bill.
JOSHIt's like they don't see anything but the fact that they're just not going to support him, and if -- it's hard where I live to see that people don't see past the racial issue. It's terrible. And you can't -- you know, I couldn't go to my job and not support my boss, who tells me what to do, because he's an African-American or any other race.
BERNARDYou know, it is -- there is something about it that is so fundamentally and profoundly sad. You know, after the election, I was one of many people who just -- I was in tears and excited, and I thought, wow, we are finally in the post-racial America. And what we have seen -- and I hope that, you know, that I'm not true in saying this, but it feels as if racial or racist tendencies have gotten worse since the president was elected.
BERNARDNow, if you're an African-American person and you're sitting back and you're watching this -- and you have so much pride -- whether you agree or disagree with all or some of his policies, you absolutely have pride in this man, who is leading the country. And you sit back and you watch, for example, commentators on television or on radio or even members of Congress who say to the president, who do you think you are, you know?
BERNARDYou don't recall anyone ever saying that to Bill Clinton when he was a Democrat running the White House. Or when people say, for example, well, no, you cannot address a joint session of Congress because, basically, we don't want to deal with you. Go, you know, address Congress the night before football game.
REHMHere's an interesting email from Liz in Baltimore, who says, "Britain's power has diminished since its empire days, but it's still a country that survives and thrives and is respected worldwide. I think the question could be can America and Americans adjust to a new identity with grace, dignity and success?" E.J.
DIONNEYou know, that's a really interesting email, and there was a big fight in Britain between the Empire Loyalists and those who call themselves Little Englanders, who thought that the country could do very well. And, indeed, Britain is a lovely place to visit and to live. But I think that the question for us Americans is, you know, countries may have a trajectory where, eventually, a country cannot dominate the world the way the United States dominated the world in 1945. But I think that's the wrong question.
DIONNETo me, the question is, can American power, on behalf of certain ideals that we are right to hold dear -- like democracy, like freedom of expression, like enterprise -- can that -- can we continue to have a lot of influence in the world, given that there are other rising powers? So I don't think it's a yes-no. Either you go all the way down, or you are running the world. I think there is some middle ground where the United States is very influential. And all things being equal, I would rather have the United States being very influential in the world.
REHMSo the question that people are debating is, is it just today's politicians, or is it our political system that could be at risk? Short break, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. I'm going to go right back to the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Clemson, S.C. Good morning, Abel. You're on the air.
ABELGood morning, Diane. Thank for taking my call.
ABELYou know, as I listen to you all's conversation and talking about the article, there are two sins which I think the Americans will admit that we have not asked for when you talk about the American dream. And both of them seem to be marred in selfishness. One is health care, the fact that we don't provide affordable health care for all the people. But the other one -- and this is what really dealing with the American dream -- is the underfunding of education.
ABELWhen I went to college -- I was able to go to college, worked during the summers and be able to afford to go to college. Now, I teach kids who are graduating from college owing $80-, $90,000 and expecting to get a job that's going to pay them $30- or $40,000. It really becomes a situation where, you know, the American dream really is becoming farther and farther out of reach for most kids and most Americans.
ABELI think that we're really going to have to look at what the American dream means and how to get that back. And I think one of the things we're going to have to do is begin to properly fund education to -- notion of this American dream.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. You know, many politicians have argued that throwing money at education is not the answer. What do you say, Michelle?
BERNARDI actually agree with that, and that's simply because I spent so much time visiting public schools, traditional public schools, as well as charter schools, all over the country. There is a fantastic public charter school in Oakland, Calif., for example. It's called the American Indian Public Charter School, started by a Native American named Ben Chavis, who actually tells a very funny story -- it's not funny. It's funny in a very sad way -- about when he was coming up as a young student.
BERNARDHe was told that because he was Native American, he was too lazy, and he wouldn't be able to wake up on time to go to school at the correct hour and this type of thing. So, anyway, Ben has started this school, the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif. The school runs at, I believe, anywhere from $7- to $10,000 a year per student, which is a lot less than what we pay here in the District of Columbia or states like New Jersey and New York pay. His students are absolutely phenomenal.
BERNARDThey are getting SAT scores higher than a lot of students in the state of California that are in "better school systems, school districts." I think 100 percent of his graduating class over the last couple of years has gone to college. So it's not necessarily a question of money. It is -- in my opinion, it is a question of the ability to recognize, number one, that every student has the ability to learn, number two, that every student learns differently and being able to have the power to devise a curriculum that works best for the students that you are dealing with.
CHINNII agree. I agree with that. But I do think that when you talk about the success of a specific charter schools or private schools, I mean, you are talking ultimately about self-selected population to some extent, right? This is the -- where they have scraped together the money, or maybe they don't have to scrape, but they get together the money because they want to pull their kid out and give them a better educational opportunity. Those kids start with a huge leg up. I don't know what...
BERNARDNot these kids. Not -- I'm sorry to interrupt, but not these kids. These kids are children who, for the most part, most people would say these are the children who cannot learn. These are the children who have no future. These are the children I don't want to deal with.
CHINNIBut their parents cared enough, right? Their parents care enough to get them there.
BERNARDYes. Absolutely. And they do the best that they can to get them there. I will tell you there's a -- we have a low-income housing area here in the Washington Metropolitan Area called Barry Farms, and we do a lot of work over in Barry Farms. And I was speaking with a young woman one day who has several children, and she said to me, have you ever heard the stories about the mothers who kill their children? And, obviously, we -- you know, I froze and said, yes, are you thinking about doing that?
BERNARDAnd she was crying and said, I'm not thinking about doing that, but I understand why they do it. Now, this is the sense of helplessness that we talk about. This is a person who would give anything to have any kind of a school, charter school or not, in her neighborhood where she can educate her children because she believes that if you get an education, your child can achieve the American dream.
REHMAll right. So...
DIONNECould I just say something on that?
REHMGo ahead, E.J.
DIONNEI mean, this is a long argument which we can pursue. I obviously think, yes, you need to reform the schools. However, we -- my wife and I live about two miles from where we're sitting in Montgomery County, Md., which has excellent public schools. And we spend a lot of money on those schools per pupil. And that money matters. And I don't think you can separate out the money spent from reform. I think we need both at the same time. But I think it's a myth that the good school systems don't spend a lot on kids. They really, really do.
REHMOkay. I want to go back to my question earlier. Are we losing sight of the American dream because of politics or because of today's politicians? Dante.
CHINNIWell, I don't want to just blame the politicians because I do think it's -- the politics -- the wealth disparities have gotten such that the politics and the politicians are kind of interconnected in some ways. Chuck Schumer recently talked about -- now, look -- and I know he represents, okay, (unintelligible) wealthy people in the Upper Westside, and they're -- they don't want to think of themselves as rich. I understand that. But he talks about how, you know, $250,000 a year is really middle class in a lot of places in the United States.
CHINNILook, the median household income in the United States is $49,000. Now, I'm not saying it's not more expensive to live in Manhattan. It obviously is. It's very expensive to live in Washington. But $250,000 a year is not middle class. But we portray them as middle class. We have a very hard time drawing this line. And we have to because, the fact of the matter is, if the median household income was $49,000, that means half the households in American make less than that.
DIONNEFirst of all, politicians is a broad word, and saying every politician is the same as every other politician just is never true. It's -- we shouldn't talk like that about ethnic or racial groups. I don't even think we should talk that way about politicians. Perhaps that's a descending view, but there are things I disagree with in George Packer's piece, but I did think it was brilliant. And I think one of the things about it that was very important is a change in the attitude of our elites.
DIONNEAnd that what he underscored is that we had, in the past -- and here, I don't think it's all nostalgia -- a kind of public regardingness among elites. Yes, they were concerned about their own interest. Everybody's concerned about their own interest. But I think we had a stronger ethic that may well have come out of World War II that you're worried about the common good, as well as your own individual well-being. And I do think we need more of that. And I think it's that ethos among the elites that shapes what's happening in politics.
REHMAll right. To Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Justin.
JUSTINHi. This is actually following along with the conversation that we just had where I'm curious who it is in the political system that stands up for the poor and middle class. You know, Michelle Bernard earlier said that the political system itself is broken, and I disagree. It seems to work perfect for people in Chuck Schumer's district. And, you know, in post-World War II, we had a strong labor movement, and they were active in fighting for the interest of the poor and the middle class.
JUSTINAnd I'm just curious -- now there's none of that. And I'm curious who's (unintelligible) that your guests think that actually represents the poor and the middle class today.
BERNARDI think that is an excellent point. You know, one of the things -- if you think about the Republican candidates who are running for the presidency now, as well as President Obama -- because this is a Democratic and a Republican problem -- we constantly hear about issues that -- dealing with the "job creators." We hear about the importance of giving a foundation and a background to the middle class.
BERNARDI have yet to hear one person running for president or running for Congress at the federal or the state level who has talked about how we help the least among us. It is a conversation that has completely disappeared from all political rhetoric. And it is a huge problem because, if you are somebody who is the least, you know, that falls within that class that we call the least among us, if you are somebody who is dangerously close of becoming someone who is a part of the permanent American underclass, you have to sit back and say, what is wrong with the moral character of the people we have elected to office?
BERNARDAnd what is wrong with the political institutions that allowed this to occur over and over and over again? I, for one, believe let's not make politics a political vocation.
REHMAnd let's hear from the last of our listeners. This is Angie from Dallas with her take on what's gone wrong.
ANGIEIn 1979, I was almost 9 years old. We took cross-country trips in the station wagon, which is possible because the kids weren't required to be strapped to booster seats and could actually move around. We listened to music on the radio. We watched the movie of the week. As an adult, I appreciate the need to pay attention to government and to be educated about the matters that affect our democracy. But what I miss about the America of my childhood is the fact that we didn't seem to need to obsess about our politics and government on a daily basis.
ANGIEThe media wasn't continuously forcing in our throats in sound bites. Politicians weren't acting like carnival barkers, demanding all of our attention all of the time. We lived our lives, and most of the time, the government went on behind the scenes. I know that our failure to pay closer attention is partly what landed us where we are today. But today is problematic in a different way.
ANGIEWe're missing a sense that we can pay attention, elect our officials and then get a decent period of time before we need to obsess over politics again. The elected official should go quietly about the job of governing while the rest of us go quietly about the job of living our lives.
DIONNEYou know, that's such an interesting set of observations. I mean, I guess I never grew up that way. I grew up in Massachusetts, where we obsess with politics all the time.
DIONNEAnd (unintelligible) politically obsessive family the way we talked about politics all the time.
DIONNENo wonder you are the way you are.
DIONNESo maybe I am totally unqualified to respond to her.
REHMYeah. What about that, Michelle?
BERNARDWell, you know, it's interesting. And, again, this goes to my point that politics or being a politician should not be a vocation like being a teacher or a policeman or a fireman or a physician. You know, maybe we need to go to a time where members of Congress are not put in a position where, as soon as they're elected, they have to start running for the next two years. Maybe their term -- when it's -- you're in for two years, and you're out, period.
REHMLet's go to Long Island, N.Y. Good morning, Jean.
JEANHi. Thank so very much for taking my call. And thank all for this wonderful, compassionate discussion. As I was speaking to the person who answered the call, I'm so glad to finally hear this discussion. My husband and I are in our late 50s, have struggled and done what so many people you mentioned have done, to earn the American dream as we knew it. We worked very hard, bought very reasonable homes and earned our way to just a simple middle class life. This recession has torn us apart.
JEANAnd while I know that I am very grateful to be still in the middle class, I am so concerned for the poorer people. I do have to say that I wake up every night with a sense of hopelessness that nobody is listening. There is no politician that addressing what this is doing to my life, my personal life, my children and the lives of people around me. Nobody is saying that this is ripping apart families, that there's a sense of futility, that the hope that the Obama administration promised feels gone.
JEANAnd yet no politicians, nobody, no leaders address this with us and help us find a way out of this futility, this hopelessness. I look at our savings that has dwindled to almost nothing. We are in our late 50s. If we don't have a way to earn back money, I thought about, well, then it's going to be trying to take our lives because what will be there for us What will be there in this world for us? And I don't see anybody proposing anything that gives me any hope.
REHMJean, your call just touches my heart. So, E.J, how do you respond?
DIONNEWell, it's very hard to respond in light of the very last thing she said -- please don't do that -- because I actually -- I do think there's a way out. I -- and I think something she said speaks to this larger discussion about President Obama. I think race does play an important role in the critical response to the president, but I also think that he has been hurt by the nature of this economic downturn.
DIONNEThe fact that a lot of people out there, some of whom liked him very much in the last campaign, feel that things haven't changed in the way he promised -- candidates always promise a lot. And he was raised up almost as a religious figure in the last election, and no one's going to be Jesus or Moses even -- no matter how good he is. I think one of the questions he faces -- there are a lot of white working class voters who have been voting for conservative candidates for a long time.
DIONNEAnd I think the beginnings of a conversation about, what are we doing about those folks whose interests, in many ways, are closely aligned with those of comparably placed African-Americans and Latinos? I think we may be at the beginning of a new conversation, and I sure hope it gives hope to our caller.
CHINNII think that's right. The other thing, you know, we looked at this latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. There are really interesting numbers about the economy in there. And one is 74 percent of the people say they're unhappy with the Obama's -- the way he's handled the economy. They -- he's let them down in terms of what they expected. But when you look at the numbers in different way, 60 percent of the people polled say that they don't think it's his fault.
CHINNISixty percent say this is a situation he's inherited. And when you ask them who's responsible for the mess right now, it's 70 percent -- it's evenly split between Wall Street and George W. Bush. So there's a sense that what's going -- and only 21 percent blame Barack Obama. There's a sense -- and this is -- the only reason I bring this up is the caller, just the heart-wrenching call. But a lot of people feel this way. That it's big. It -- the problem is enormous. And they're not just blaming Obama. I mean, they look and they see something, and they don't see a way out.
BERNARDYeah. I have so much empathy for the caller. One thing I would note, if we would have sort of turned things around and look at it a different way, I feel incredibly hopeful. And I know that this caller is feeling a sense of hopelessness...
REHMBut why are you optimistic?
BERNARDI am optimistic because I am someone who really, really believes in the moral power of the country and of our citizens.
REHMBut Jean believes it, too. She did.
BERNARDShe does, and I think what she needs to remember is that where she is feeling like she has no power right now, she does have the power of the vote. And I think that citizens, rather than sitting back and getting dissatisfied and feeling like things will never change, I think we need to see a coalition of people who go to the polls and say it is our tax dollars that allow you to live the lifestyle that you live. And you're not representing us, and we put you in office. And we will take you out.
BERNARDThat has what has been so fundamentally strong about the Tea Party activists. Whether you agree with their politics or not, they actually stood up and voted in the people that they wanted to see elected. And the disenfranchised have to do the same.
REHMLet me read you a final comment. This is from Angie, a listener who says, "The American dream is overrated. We do not all want the same things from life. My dream was more to do with how I want to live my life, the things I want to accomplish, the kinds of friends and people I attract to my life. It has less to do with how much money we have or keeping up with the Joneses. Americans have gotten too spoiled. Expectations are often unrealistic. Too many people have forgotten what we should be truly thankful for."
REHMAnd that is the beginning of yet another program. Thank you all so much for being here.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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