Friday, December 4, 2020

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Guest Commentary

The American Dream: Jobs or justice?


As we come to terms with election results — and the frustration or despair with the 2016 campaigns — here are three topics worth considering:

1. How will we define the American Dream in the 21st century?

2. How does the 1940 election shed light on 2016’s and Iowa’s role in both?

3. How do we make America better if not “great again?”

1. Defining the “American Dream” in terms of jobs or justice is illustrated in the contrast between the experiment in self governance envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the 1928 GOP promise that election of Herbert Hoover would mean “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”


One American Dream reflects the 18th century thought of those like James Otis that the best government is neither that which governs most nor least, but that which is most just. Nowadays, it seems at times the American Dream is Hooray! Regardless of potential risks and damage, the Dakota Access oil pipeline will create thousands of high paying jobs.

A dilemma for the American Dream is that poverty stricken families are hard pressed to engage in self-governance when their children are suffering, and better-off families are so insulated from survival woes that they can ignore the dream envisioned by the founding fathers.

Regardless of which version of the American Dream dominates the day’s events, neither dream has yet to deliver sufficient jobs or justice for millions of citizens. And it should not be an “either/or” choice.

We still have a way to go to fulfill our dreams as a nation.

2. If the issues of 2016 were scary, consider the election of 1940 when the nation agonized over whether Nazi Germany posed a threat to us. In 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton characterized some supporters of Donald Trump as “baskets of deplorables,” partly because of their racism. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking a third term, characterized isolationists on the political right as “cheerful idiots” — who included American hero aviator Charles Lindbergh and his infatuation with Adolf Hitler.

In 2016, the governor and other Iowans evaluated candidates as to who could best reward Iowa with support for ethanol and the Iowa caucuses. In 1940, Iowans gave more than they asked for. Iowan Henry Wallace was the Democratic candidate for vice president; Iowan Harry Hopkins served FDR so well he was dubbed the “deputy president” — one of the few people FDR relied upon and did not play games with. The Cowles brothers, Mike and John, publishers in Des Moines and Minneapolis, boosted the GOP candidacy of Wendell Willkie, whose nomination was almost as much a blow to the Republican establishment as was Trump’s this year. Willkie’s political views, however, were similar to FDR’s and maybe to 2016’s Bernie Sanders — evidence of how out-of-step the Iowa GOP of 1940 would be with the party in 2016.

Perhaps the lesson of these comparisons and contrasts is that almost every presidential election is considered critical and scary because, after all, it is. (The 1940 election is covered well in Susan Dunn’s book, “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh and Hitler.”)

3. “Make America Great Again” — the Trump slogan — just didn’t work for many of us. “Great Again” for whom? Older white men? The line has Machiavellian overtones of how it is better to be feared than to be loved. How about working to make the world better and making the American Dreams work not only for immigrants but also for our own citizens? As Emma Lazarus wrote for the Statue of Liberty, we can offer hope to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Or as former White House aide and PBS commentator Bill Moyers wrote: “In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether ‘we, the people’ is a reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.” ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.strentz21


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