The nonpartisan Rasmussen polling company shows Republicans leading Democrats by significant margins on every major political issue: the economy, national security, Iraq, education, immigration, Social Security, taxes and, not surprisingly, health care. With seven months to go before the midterm election some Democrats feel they have time to change the national mood.
For his part, President Barack Obama maintains that the American people will look more favorably on the Democrats' accomplishments once they realize the benefits of the new health care law and the economy picks up after his still-nonexistent jobs bill is passed. All that remains to be seen, and there is little evidence to believe either claim.
This is not the time, however, to rehash the tremendous flaws of a health care law that forces 85 percent of the population to pay for the other 15 percent. Nor should it be a chance to ridicule the president and his party for failing to address economic matters while the country was in the midst of dealing with one of the largest recessions in U.S. history. Those are things voters will have plenty of time to think about come this November.
What is important to appreciate is why this all matters, at least for the growing majority of Americans. How is it that the president who inspired so many could become the target of so much anger and resentment? Why have the Democrats lost so much support when all they've been trying to do is work for the underprivileged? When did people start supporting Republicans again after wanting nothing to do with them a year ago? And can someone please give the Tea Party a sedative?
Such questions have a variety of answers, many of them overlapping with each other and others seemingly contradictory. What really lies at the heart of the issue has to do with philosophical differences over what living in America means. The easiest way to examine these issues is to examine how liberals and conservatives view the American dream.
Conservatives think the American dream is both emblematic of our nation's character and the key factor in explaining why the U.S. enjoys economic and political prosperity despite its relatively young age. Yet conservatives also believe in the American dream itself as much as they believe it exists. The principles that say hard work and determination will provide far more than any government can, the principles that say man, not his neighbor, is responsible for his own destiny, and the principles that say America is a land where everyone can enjoy prosperity if they are willing to earn it, are all very essential for conservatives.
In contrast, liberals often don't believe in the American dream at all. Many consider it not only nonexistent but a fabrication, devised by politicians and corporations eager to manipulate the poor and middle class into serving as pawns for the top wage earners.
Still others reject the idea that the U.S. is a place where opportunity exists regardless of background. The legacy of discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation in the U.S., these people claim, is a clear example of how the system is and has always been rigged to keep certain people disenfranchised.
Yet when else in human history have people been more capable or likelier to achieve success and improve their quality of life? Before he was a captain of industry, John D. Rockefeller was one of six children with a father who was rarely present in his life and a mother who struggled to make ends meet. Cornelius Vanderbilt quit school at the age of 11 and worked on his father's ferry to help his parents make a living. Herbert Hoover was orphaned at the age of nine, never attended high school, and went to night school after work to learn bookkeeping.
The list goes on, but one must be careful against indulging too much in great American success stories because people begin to interpret them as typical. And therein lies the problem with how some liberals view the American dream. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Hoover earned wealth by working hard, despite their disadvantaged backgrounds. The reality is, however, that many people have disadvantaged backgrounds and they won't become successful despite all the opportunities available in the United States. This does not, however, disprove the American dream. So maybe the son of a farmer or single parent won't become a billionaire. But he'll very likely have a better life than his parents. And his grandkids will have a better life then he did.
That narrative is a powerful one and is responsible for keeping people motivated to work hard and provide for their families. It is at once a great privilege and enormous responsibility that comes with being an American. In many ways the American dream is built on hope, but a genuine kind of hope, not the false and deceptive kind that a politician espouses to justify bloated government programs and regulations.
As long as Democrats and the president continue to insist on selling the American people a vision that is logically and rhetorically flawed, they will continue to see a decline in public support. This is not a debate about the latest Tea Party stunt or what Rush Limbaugh has to say. This is a confrontation between those who seek to preserve and restore the American way of life and those who see the U.S. as a place that embraces false hope.