The American Dream and other attacks on deliberative democracy

The trope of the American Dream, or at least the phrase itself, has been making a comeback within the organizations that represent the American left. Most notably, Van Jones has dubbed his new project The American Dream Movement, and has established as its goal to “rebuild the dream.” What is the dream that we are rebuilding? Van Jones explains:

It’s the dream of a country where, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can live with dignity, provide for your family, and give your kids a better life. A country where we strive for greatness–and take care of each other when times get hard.

The American Dream Movement — assuming we can call a letterhead coalition built around a cult of personality a movement — is certainly not the only group that has summoned the American Dream trope in its messaging. Earlier this year, put out two calls to action in response to the Wisconsin labor battles, one titled “Defend the American Dream” and the other titled “Rally to Save the American Dream.” Even less prominent groups are getting in on the game: the Caring Across Generations campaign recently put out an emergency call to action to “Protect the American Dream” in response to the now-resolved debt-ceiling theatre.

The first thing that strikes me about this messaging is that it is amusingly inconsistent. What are we supposed to be doing with the American Dream exactly? On some sides it appears that we are protecting, saving, and defending it — this implying that it presently exists, but is under attack. On other sides, specifically Jones’ organization, it appears that the American Dream has already been destroyed, and that we are trying to revive it. The communications professionals shaping this messaging need to come together to figure out which line they want to use.

On a more substantive note, using this trope in a way that implies it actually describes the reality of any time in the past or present is marginalizing and simply historically false. The American Dream has always been a myth for all but a select few in the population. Those who call upon the trope typically have in mind the post-WWII era as the period in which the Dream reigned. For groups that are supposed to be leftist in orientation, you would think that romanticizing the 1950s would be something obviously problematic. Suggesting that the time period was one where hard work paid coincidentally ignores the plight of women, people of color, and the poor white underclass, the very constituencies that these organizations attempt to represent.

Of course, dissecting the follies involved in relying on the rhetoric of The American Dream is a fruitless enterprise. It assumes wrongly that the public relations messaging, soundbites, and talking points put out by organizations actually attempt to make substantive points. We have reached a point — or maybe it has always been the case — where all of the communications coming from any prominent group, politician, or company are smothered in sugary manipulation that specifically intends to mislead.

Sadly, we have an entire profession — the public relations profession — whose sole purpose is to pollute public dialogue with slogans and phrases that score well with focus groups while simultaneously being completely devoid of content. Public figures are drilled to stick to limited talking points, and never genuinely engage with ideas or others. You can see this phenomenon in play in any speech, press release, or other communication coming from almost any organization or politician. You can also see it in the presidential debates, a quadrennial spectacle so awful that it can only properly be described as a mind-numbing show of talking point call and response.

What is most troubling about these practices is how functionally anti-democratic they are. Contemporary political philosophers have converged upon a definition of democracy as being “government by discussion.” This understanding of democracy — sometimes referred to as deliberative or discursive democracy — places public deliberation and reasoning at the center of an actually democratic state. The achievement of this state requires certain discourse norms or ethics, a point most prominently brought out by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

One does not need to delve too deeply into the idea of discourse ethics to realize that the present state of dialogue in American politics is antithetical to what would be required for a government by discussion — that is, a democracy. What kind of discussion is it when the most prominent and loudest voices are rattling off slogans and platitudes with the specific intent to avoid substantive ideas and positions? It is not a discussion at all. These “discussions” do not mimic discourse or reasoning; instead, they mimic corporate branding and advertisement.

If we hope to pursue an actual deliberative democracy — one that involves more than filling out ballots — this whole approach to communication needs to be done away with. When an organization uses messaging and communication that is only barely related to its own internal discussions and ideas, that is misleading and anti-democratic. It makes public reasoning and discourse impossible. All sides are guilty of this kind of discourse pollution, but the resurgence of the American Dream trope on the left is unfortunately the most recent instance of it.