Why Obama and Romney Both Misunderstand “The American Dream”

As Romney begins his pivot, he and President Obama are highlighting their competing visions for growing prosperity and riches: One, building from the bottom up; the other, trickling from the top down. The data show that Obama’s argument is more correct, but don’t look for any bipartisan compromise towards creating a sane fiscal policy. Nor, for that matter, towards progress on any other major issues. From a political psychology perspective, one can interpret the policies adovcated by the Republicans’ as increasingly extreme and reactionary.  They are likely to create suffering for large segments of society. At the same time, the party is resuscitating social issues from decades ago.

These have dangerous consequences, and you can’t help wondering what’s driving their positions with such zeal. There are many sources, but a major one is psychological.  It has three strands which culminate in policies that pervert what politicians like to call “The American Dream” – the possibility for all members of society to build a successful and fulfilling life. But that dream is increasingly pointed towards the few who can become rich, at the expense of the many. Let’s look at the three psychological strands that underlie that twist, and how they impact people’s work and lives.

Little Boys Play-Acting As Grown-Ups

The younger Republicans often sound like little boys making demands and arguments that they imagine big, grown-up men do and say when they have power, like “I will have my way, and you must obey me.” Interestingly, most of them are baby boomers now in their midlife years. Perhaps this reflects a psychological and cultural theme of this generation worth exploring. But their posturing does appear to reflect a twisted sense of what it means to be a psychologically mature adult man, who — in reality — must be able to engage with collaboratively to achieve anything. This theme is explored in a recent collection of essays, Global Masculinities and Manhood presents how views of manhood appear within different cultures, and the forms it can take.

Different Mentalities Of Liberals And Conservatives

A recent Washington Post article by Chris Mooney cites empirical research that liberals and conservatives have different ways of thinking. They differ on a number of cognitive traits: For example, liberals consistently score higher on openness to experience — wanting to try new things and new ideas. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change. On the other hand, they enjoy greater order and structure, and they seek more closure around issues than do liberals. Such differences explain some reasons why each orientation perceives problems and their solutions in such differing ways.

Becoming Rich In America

Both Obama’s and Romney’s parties tacitly embrace Ronald Reagan’s statement that the American dream means “… an America in which people can get rich.” Of course, becoming rich is always a goal for some people. But policies now seem aimed at benefiting those already there or close to it. Obama highlights that, though arguing for a middle class push. He says, “I want folks to get rich in this country. I think it’s wonderful when people are successful.” But, he argues, “In this country, prosperity has never trickled down from the wealthy few. Prosperity has always come from the bottom up, from a strong and growing middle class.”

In contrast, Romney claims that the best path to riches is to help businesses become more successful, through easing regulations and lowering taxes. And that “we need to build successful businesses of every kind imaginable.” Both Obama and Romney seem to emphasize the importance of having a path towards becoming rich as the pinnacle of a life goal; it’s just that their paths differ: Obama supports the rise of the middle class towards greater riches, while Romney supports enabling people at the top to prosper more.

In terms of broad psychological and social impact, Obama’s strategy is more supported by the data. Obama cites the fact that our “… share of our national income going to the top one percent has climbed to levels we haven’t seen since the 1920s.” He adds that the richest people in the country are also paying taxes at one of the lowest rates in 50 years.

Growing disparity is a reality. And it’s creating more problems, as a Washington Post analysis recently documented. That is, the Republican position embraces that disparity for the benefit of the richest segments of society. Analysis of the Ryan budget  proposal shows it would support the rich at the expense of the poor by, for example, slashing food stamps and contributing to more poverty. That prompted the Catholic Bishops to lambaste it for hurting the poor and violating Catholic teachings regarding morality.

And adding to the retro-Republican positions now in ascendance, are Congressman Allen West and Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly accusing members of Congress and other public figures of being “Communists” – an odd accusation to hear in this second decade of the 21st Century.

Nevertheless, the Democrats shy away from arguing for a strong government role in serving and supporting the greater good, for all of society. They appear reluctant to argue that the push towards exclusionary self-interest is occurring at the very time when we need policies and actions that promote opportunity for all segments of society. That’s the opposite of extreme self-interest – of becoming rich and amassing power for oneself, to the exclusion of others. Nothing comes from nothing. Success always depends on the help and support of others, whatever your situation. The Ayn Rand fables, enamored by some on the right, reflect delusion, not reality.

The globalized world and its insecurities generate understandable fears of loss, confusion, and insecurity. These are powerful sources of anxiety for all.  Some, more prone to conservative perspectives, and —  if driven by insecurity about their standing in the world, or simply too selfish to share resources with those less fortunate — may congeal around reactionary policies, seeking self-protection and false security.

And that connects with the still-dominant view of a successful life mostly defined by financial and self-interested criteria — consuming and possessing for oneself. And yet, each person’s success and well-being today depends on helping others, especially in the context of economic fluctuations, threats from failed states, and the increasing consequences of climate change.

The upshot is that security, success and well-being require strengthening communal values and behavior; working towards goals that benefit all. Acting on self-interest alone, is a non-sustainable way of life. Interestingly, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, cites evidence that collaboration within groups enabled survival and evolution. Similarly, new research finds that collaboration and cooperation spurred the growth of intelligence and brain as humans evolved.

Interestingly, Obama’s 2011 SOTU speech emphasized that the world has changed significantly — that it requires all of us to work towards common goals. But the Democrats seem reluctant to emphasize that now.  And yet, supporting each other isn’t just a value shared by religious traditions. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage. Moreover, research shows that you can learn to increase your capacity for empathy and compassion. It’s “hard-wired.”

As many progressive business leaders already know, that’s also good for the bottom line. Among the most prominent is the billionaire Richard Branson, who argues that a business with a social conscience will have more motivated employees, save resources, drive higher profits, and be more satisfying than even the material wealth it creates.

We’re not isolated entities on a planet that exists for our personal benefit, alone. We all need and depend on each other. President Obama would do well to show aggressive leadership towards pushing that vision. It’s the American Dream, after all.