Just because I don’t want to ignore the two main speeches from last night’s convention, as I feel I did in my initial thoughts on the convention, let me wind back to them. I found them to be mostly similar, and actually, mostly limiting. First Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, spoke of an early life dominated by the sacrifice of a generous mother, winning a Menudo contest to pay off the maternity bill, working hard to provide opportunities for her twin boys. And then, this myth:
My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible. Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward.
America didn’t become the land of opportunity by accident. My grandmother’s generation and generations before always saw beyond the horizons of their own lives and their own circumstances. They believed that opportunity created today would lead to prosperity tomorrow. That’s the country they envisioned, and that’s the country they helped build. The roads and bridges they built, the schools and universities they created, the rights they fought for and won—these opened the doors to a decent job, a secure retirement, the chance for your children to do better than you did.
That hasn’t been true for a while, I’m sad to say. American social mobility is among the lowest in the industrialized world. We like to tell ourselves these stories about rising from hardscrabble beginnings – indeed, it was the theme of BOTH the Republican and Democratic conventions – but there’s a selection bias involved. The people telling the stories can always reach back as far as they need in their history to find some poorer ancestor whose courage and confidence led to where they are today. The poor ancestors who had just as much courage, just as much confidence, but didn’t get the same breaks, whose progeny didn’t rise above a certain level regardless of their ability? They don’t get talked about because their descendants don’t have the microphone.
Moreover, I’m thoroughly unconvinced that this idea of sacrifice, especially when that sacrifice comes because the wages of increased productivity have been distributed to the corporation rather than the worker for the last 30 years, is virtuous at all. When Ted Strickland last night lauded the factory worker whose life consists of “eat, sleep, Jeep,” it didn’t offer much of a life worth living, in my view. Especially when there is enough prosperity generated in the country that nobody should actually have to drudge away in these lives of quiet desperation.
We have a drastically unequal society, and that makes it all the harder to the vast numbers who grow up in poverty and below the middle class to make it to the top. When you only hear from the strivers, it can sound differently, that new people and new faces can always have a chance to rise, if government just gives them the opportunity. More, from Castro:
And it starts with education. Twenty years ago, Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity [...]
Of all the fictions we heard last week in Tampa, the one I find most troubling is this: If we all just go our own way, our nation will be stronger for it. Because if we sever the threads that connect us, the only people who will go far are those who are already ahead. We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
The problem is that this only plays out along the lines of equality of opportunity. You have to work hard, and there’s this myth that hard work will find its reward in a society without barriers. This was the main theme of Michelle Obama’s speech as well. She talked of her father working his tail off to give his kids the opportunity to succeed. She talked of her family’s early struggles, and the appreciation this gave them for the need to extend a hand to those beneath you rather than slamming the door shut.
But that’s simply not how it works in America. The door has been slammed shut to those who don’t have the benefits bestowed on the rich and powerful. To some, it’s unseemly to say that, I guess. But it’s true; the economy has ceased to work to reinforce this myth of getting ahead through hard work and realizing potential. And what’s also true is that equality of opportunity is not enough. The meritocracy doesn’t even work this way; it pulls up the ladder rather than extending it down a rung. This belief that equality of opportunity is enough is deeply dangerous.
We need to be a society that does much more than provide equal access to our deeply unjust and flawed pseudo meritocratic system. We need to be a society that guarantees basic dignity for all people, a society that understands that luck is just as big a factor in most people’s success as hard work, and a society that understands that there is more to human life than simply destroying one’s life and soul to maximize some corporation’s profits.
I don’t think the speeches reflected that, not because America isn’t ready to hear the message, but because those who benefited from the current system cannot conceive of a different one.
My suspicion is that we’ll hear something different from Elizabeth Warren tonight, but we’ll have to see.