Approximately 13 years ago, I blogged about “The American Dream.” As a real estate professional at the time, I had noticed that certain politicians continually referred to “home ownership” as the quintessential aspect of the American Dream. What directly followed that claim were fiscal policies, such as artificially low interest rates, and lending practices, such as interest-only loans and wildly adjustable rate mortgages, that convinced even the poorest Americans they could afford to own their own homes. After all, it’s the American Dream.
Many of you know the eventual result: a boom in housing prices around the nation, and an even larger subsequent collapse as people defaulted en masse on mortgages they could never afford in the first place. Although many North Dakotans were shielded from the worst of these impacts, because most local lenders tended not to follow such predatory lending practices, our concept of the American Dream has still suffered.
We love to talk about how polarized our nation has become. One way of looking at this is not as a societal divide but as societal confusion. Can we, as a society, even coherently define the American Dream anymore? Even in North Dakota?
When I was in grade school four decades ago, I believe at least one aspect of the American Dream was still being fairly represented. Although as a nation we imbibed and absorbed many of our business practices and legal practices from established British business and legal concepts, this was the one concept that separated us most from our British ancestors: it didn’t matter your station of birth, noble or peasant or anywhere in between, the American Dream meant that in this nation, you would have the opportunity to succeed or fail based on your own devices: on the work you were willing to put in, on the strength of your ideas, your persistence, your character, and so on. That was the American Dream, at least the financial aspect. If you did fail, at least you had the opportunity to try.
In Britain, and in most of Europe at the time, though frankly this was a worldwide attitude and in many places still is, there were some people born into nobility… and then everyone else. If you had been born into nobility, it didn’t matter what kind of scoundrel you were, you were likely to live a life of wealth and ease. If you weren’t nobility, you were destined to a life of waiting hand and foot on the nobility, who tended to think of you as less than human, if they thought of you at all. Not so in the American Experiment.
Today, though, as a society in general we have decided that failing in life in any way is no longer an allowable concept. Thus everyone has to be supported on the backs of everyone else. Many of you will resonate with where this column could go from here: the crushing debt produced in our society as a result of welfare policies, free college for illegal immigrants, etc.
But in North Dakota, I think one of the greatest sources of our confusion about the American Dream involves this other aspect: self-governance. Our nation was created in such a way that we essentially would rule over ourselves, by choosing others we respect to represent our interests, and by offering up our own service in some capacity.
Here’s where our state has gone astray. The concept of self-governance morphed into “the government needs to just leave me alone.” While I support the concept of limited government, if a self-governing nation expects to prevent being ruled over by others, the people themselves must stay actively involved in the process.
Many North Dakotans and other Americans are waking up to this reality, and we see the ensuing battles at every level of government. Parents who stand up to school boards are branded as domestic terrorists. Once passive citizens getting active are seen as a threat to power rather than as a necessary component to self-governance.
If we want societal harmony, let’s begin by recapturing these two essences of the American Dream: that some people will inevitably fail in aspects of life, and that those who want self-governance must actually participate and be welcomed into the process.