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Myth, Politics and the Erosion of The American Dream

Paul Stoller: Professor of Anthropology,  West Chester University;  Author, ‘The Power of the Between’ – Posted: March 11, 2011 02:25 PM


There has been much myth making during the latest political cycle. Public figures like Sarah Palin, Mick Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Michelle Bachman, among many others, have suggested both directly and indirectly that the United States is “broke,” that global warming is a scientific fiction, that President Obama’s health care reform legislation is an example of socialism, or that President Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the United States, which explains his “foreign” ideas.

Perhaps the most damaging political myth is one that was created during the Reagan Presidency: that big government is responsible for our domestic problems. The narrative of this political myth suggests strongly that all of our social and economic problems would “melt into the air” if we outsource public responsibilities to the private sector and return the republic to its long lost diet of low taxes and limited government.

None of these claims stand up to even minimal scrutiny. No reasonable person thinks that the United Stares is “broke.” Climate scientists say that global warming is inconclusively fact — not fiction. President Obama’s complex health legislation bears no resemblance to more centralized medical systems that you find in European nations like France, Germany and Italy. President Obama is a Christian not a Muslim, who spent the great bulk of his formative years in Hawaii. Rather than bringing us unimaginable prosperity, a decade of lower taxes and more limited government regulation triggered the greatest economic downturn since The Great Depression. In practice, the mantra of limited government and lower taxes has provided political cover for an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the super-rich. According to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Development, J.B. Davies and his colleagues found that 1 percent of the US population controls 50 percent of the national wealth. If you look at the data in this and other studies of wealth distribution, it is clear that people in the bottom 60 percent bracket of income (the middle, lower-middle and working classes) control only a minimal amount of our wealth — perhaps 5 percent. These disturbing statistics suggest a strong erosion of the middle class and an unchecked movement toward plutocracy.

Despite these scientifically validated facts, millions of Americans, who continue to believe in these mythical fictions, repeatedly vote against their interests. How can that be? I think some of the misplaced persistence can be traced to the power of myth. To paraphrase the words of the late Clifford Geertz, one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century, myths are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Powerful narratives based upon fiction — not fact — myths shape our perception of the world. They create frameworks for our behavior. They are impervious to logical or factual critique. As such, myths are powerful political tools that the powers-that-be have long used in their attempt to control social behavior.

Education is the mortal enemy of political myth-makers who want to shape your thoughts and chart your behavior — all to meet the end of further income redistribution. Consider the latest budget proposals in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the state where I teach anthropology at a public university. Citing the mythic benefits of lower taxes and limited government, Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, wants to slash the public higher education budget by 50 percent. Such a cut would simply decimate public higher education in Pennsylvania. What does that mean? In addition to staff layoffs, and program cuts, it means that our students, many of whom come from lower-middle class and working class families, would face an estimated 28 percent increase in tuition. Put another way, it means that if Governor Corbett has his way, scores of my students, no longer able to pay for their education, would have to drop out of school.

Let me make this scenario more personal. As I said in a previous post, many of my students are the first members of their families to attend college. Seekers of The American Dream, most of them have to work one of two jobs to pay for what has been a reasonable tuition at our state universities. To make ends meet, my best students often have work 20 to 30 hours a week at convenience stores or restaurants. Despite their time-consuming and energy-depleting economic routines, they come to class, read what I assign, turn in first-rate essays and score well on my exams. They never complain about their economic struggles. Their grit, which inspires me deeply, is a beacon of hope for the future.

The shortsighted draconian budget of Governor Tom Corbett, which is based upon faulty economic principles, will dash the future hopes of my hard working students most of whom come from families of working people, many of whom, believing in the mythic mantra of lower taxes and limited government, might have voted for Governor Corbett. The choice is a stark one. We can cave in to the likes Governor Corbett and become increasingly uninformed and pliant citizens who control less and less of the wealth in a nation of faded dreams, or we can speak truth to power, invest seriously in education and secure a more egalitarian and robust future. Which choice will you make?

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