What Happens When a Dream Dies?

Constitution_We_the_People

Imagine you wake up in the middle of the night. There is a loud crash in the living room downstairs. You turn on the light and grab for your phone. You hear movement down below and know that there is an intruder in your house. Some people might reach for their guns, while others will dial 911 (including me). After making contact with the dispatcher, she assures you that help is on the way. You breath a sigh of relief when the cops are at your door because you know that they have arrived to help you. If you’ve traveled the world, you know that it’s not always a good idea to call the police when you run into any trouble. Sure, the police are technically supposed to help you according to the “rule of law” on the legislative books of most countries. But the system doesn’t always work that way. Without sufficient faith in and respect for the rule of law, the system breaks down.

This election season has had me reflecting a great deal on the state of affairs in our democracy and where we are headed as a nation. Overall, I’m not that optimistic. It’s safe to say that my faith in our democracy has been shaken. Not just by this election season. I’ve been watching decades of gerrymandering, eight years of obstructionism in U.S. Congress, growing power of the Executive Office, increasing polarization of politics, growing inequality between the poor and the rich, the decline of the middle class, the loss of faith in the rule of law among African Americans, the rise of social media and the fall of in-depth analysis, fact checking and critical thought and the surge in hate groups and rightwing militia. I fear that our democracy is not up to the task and may break down, especially if the dream dies.

Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, recently posted a piece on Washington Post’s PostEverything, making a bold claim. He suggests that political structures such as separation of powers and rule of law may not be sufficient to make a democracy work. We also need social norms to hold everything together. Social norms embody a high amount of faith in and respect for the political process. Without these things, it is not terribly difficult to circumvent the process to achieve various ends. For example, U.S. Presidents have made increasing use of “Executive Orders” in past decades, effectively legislating in the stead of Congress. Meanwhile, members of Congress have shirked their responsibility for passing the budget for the federal government and attempted to leverage that power to get their way. Without faith in and respect for our political system, it may decline. And we may not notice until it’s too late.

The American people don’t believe that the system works anymore-at least not for them. Just listen to all this talk about the so-called “establishment.” I live in Washington D.C. and work in politics. And I don’t really know what they are talking about. Why is it such a terrible thing to find areas of agreement across party lines and solve the problems facing our nation? We have problems that need solutions. Why is compromise with the other side such a betrayal of trust? In a democracy, compromise is the name of the game. The whole point of our political system is to limit the will of the majority over smaller groups and to force a compromise that is acceptable to most people. In a democracy, not everyone is supposed to be happy all the time. We’re supposed to be enabled to pursue happiness, but there’s no guarantee for achieving it. The point is to strike a balance that is fair to the most people. If the other side doesn’t like it, then they need to get elected and strike a different balance. Establishment appears to be a nasty word for our political process.

The Founding Fathers embedded the “American Dream” in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. All Americans are said to have inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers sought to protect these rights through various political structures such as the separation of powers and a rule of law. And against all odds, the governing framework established by the Founding Fathers has been severely tested since our country’s founding in 1789 and survived the tests to form a stronger union.

For much of the past century, people have flocked to our country to experience the freedoms and independence offered by our great democracy. And for years, immigrants have risen up from nothing to achieve the American Dream (or Canadian in the case of half my family). Both sides of my family immigrated from the Netherlands to North America with nothing in their pockets-one side to the United States and the other to Canada. My grandfather immigrated to Canada with his young wife and infant daughter (my mother) after World War II to find a better life for himself. There was not enough farmland after the war to be distributed among 11 sons (say what? yeah.) He started out as labor hand working on someone else’s farm and lived in a one-room house with his growing family (seven kids). Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a small plot of land for himself. My grandfather built 2,000 square feet of greenhouses, began growing cut mums and founded a flower growing business called Creekside Gardens. Now, the business includes 300,000 square feet of greenhouses and 12 acres of outdoor production in the summer. Without him and my other grandparents, I would not likely have a PhD, live in DC and work for the U.S government today. I’ve lived the American Dream.

Today, the United States has reached an important juncture. The political climate in the U.S. has become vicious and unproductive. For the past decade, Congress has been severely polarized and unable to make important political decisions needed for the continued welfare of our country. Big money appears to have more say in politics than the average Joe, creating a sense of hopelessness for positive change for the smallest voice. Wealth in the U.S. is becoming more and more concentrated among the top 1-5% of Americans. Growing inequality has fueled resentment against new immigrants and highlighted ethic, social and religious divisions across the nation. And religion is becoming radicalized on many fronts from the jihadists to the far right evangelicals. Meanwhile, science is democratizing at an impressive pace, leading to diffusion of power from governments and offering average citizens new tools for uprising.

For most people, the American Dream seems to be moving farther and farther beyond reach every year. What will happen if the dream dies?

What happens when fewer and fewer Americans believe that they can overcome their current circumstances to achieve a better life for themselves? How do they channel their frustration?

What happens when more and more Americans lose their faith in the democratic process? They believe that the system doesn’t work for them, therefore it must not work at all.

What happens when segments of society have no reason to trust in the rule of law? The rule of law may exist for some, but they know it’s not on their side?

What happens when politicians stop trying to find compromise and instead promote their ideological agendas?

Will our perfect union survive these difficult tests? I’m not sure. I believe the it depends in part on restoring faith and respect for the U.S. political system. In my upcoming novel, The Nuclear Conspiracy, I will be exploring these themes and illustrating the potential consequences of failure. Stay tuned…

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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