Step into the captivating world of Ours Was the Shining Future by David Leonhardt, where the essence of the American Dream unfolds in a narrative filled with hope, challenges, and triumphs. This thought-provoking exploration takes you on a journey that transcends time, resonating with the enduring spirit of the American Dream. Brace yourself for an insightful review that delves into the heart of this compelling narrative.
Embark on this literary adventure and discover the profound insights that await you. Continue reading to unravel the layers of Ours Was the Shining Future and gain a deeper understanding of the American Dream.
Ours Was the Shining Future navigates the complexities of the American Dream through the lens of its characters’ lives. From historical events to personal struggles, the narrative weaves a tapestry that captures the essence of resilience and ambition. As characters strive for success, face adversity, and redefine their destinies, the novel becomes a powerful reflection of the multifaceted nature of the American Dream.
David Leonhardt masterfully intertwines history and fiction, creating a narrative that resonates with authenticity and emotional depth. The characters are vividly portrayed, and their journeys evoke a range of emotions from triumph to heartbreak. The exploration of the American Dream is nuanced, challenging conventional notions and inviting readers to contemplate its true meaning. Leonhardt’s prose is both eloquent and impactful, making Ours Was the Shining Future a must-read for those seeking a profound literary experience. This novel not only entertains but also prompts reflection on the enduring pursuit of the American Dream.
Table of Contents
History, Economics, Career Success, Society, Culture, Drama, Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Social Issues, Family Saga, Cultural Heritage, Inspirational, Political, Coming-of-Age, Literary Fiction
Introduction: Discover how the American Dream became a casualty of an evolving political landscape
Ours Was the Shining Future (2023) reflects on the rise and fall of democratic capitalism and the American Dream. It highlights the growing disparity between political representation and the economic interests of the working class in the United States.
These days, the idea of the “American Dream” is likely to be invoked in an ironic or cynical fashion. In a way, it’s understandable. Over the past decade, life expectancy in the US has begun to decline and living standards have plateaued. It’s all become known as the Great American Stagnation. Despite past economic booms, subsequent generations, including Generation X and Millennials, have faced diminishing chances of outearning their parents.
There was a time in the US when democracy and capitalism seemed to coexist in a harmonious balance. So what happened? The Great American Stagnation is attributed to two fundamental problems: slower economic growth and increased income inequality. As we’ll explore in the sections ahead, the rise and fall of the American Dream and democratic capitalism is the result of power, culture, and investment. When these forces are unaligned, it leads to a disconnect between the political landscape and the economic interests of working-class Americans.
A dream on the rise
It’s difficult to know for certain, but the phrase, “the American Dream,” seems to have first appeared around the time of the Great Depression – the economic crisis of the 1930s that forced the US to reconsider just about everything.
Up to that point, there were two forces of power when it came to the economy. There was the Progressive movement and the big business interests, and they were completely at odds with each other. On the one hand, Progressives were hard at work trying to establish things like a minimum wage and safer working conditions. On the other, big business interests were essentially proponents of what the author refers to as rough-and-tumble capitalism. This is the version of capitalism that is accompanied by low taxes and few regulations. A laissez-faire government allows corporations to behave largely as they want, and for market forces to dominate.
The Progressive movement had made some headway at the turn of the century when it came to economic equality. But the kind of worker’s rights that cut into profits were the subject of a fierce backlash in the 1910s. So, while the 1920s were an economic boom time, it was also a time of severe economic imbalance – and the decade ended with a crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s.
During the 30s, the opposing powers faced off in a battle over the rising power of worker’s unions. The Depression created a dire situation for so many people that a large political force was able to band together under a common cause. The workers were demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more rights.
The Minneapolis coal drivers strike of 1934 became a turning point. Led by union branch Local 574, the strike resulted in substantial concessions from employers, setting a precedent for union victories across various industries. The strike put the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, in a tough situation in having to decide between the interests of influential big business or the downtrodden workers. But ultimately he came down on the side of the unions.
His administration, bolstered by the Secretary of Labor, Fannie Perkins, further solidified workers’ rights with the Wagner Act in 1935. This protected the right to collective bargaining, and it played a pivotal role in shaping policies that included public works, a minimum wage, and workplace safety.
Labor unions have gotten their fair share of criticism over the years, but they have historically played a crucial role in securing workers’ rights and improving living standards. The early worries were that unions would harm the economy, but the evidence suggests that when unions thrive, wealth is better redistributed. The CEOs may receive less money, but the economy is unharmed.
An important takeaway here is that the success of the labor movement in the 1930s depended on political support. Their efforts would have likely been crushed without supportive leaders like Roosevelt and Perkins. The story of Minneapolis in the 1930s illustrates how collective action and political backing can lead to significant social and economic change, shaping a more just and equitable society.
President Roosevelt’s evolving policies and the strengthening of worker’s unions around the country helped turn the tide and put the US on the path of recovery. The nation began to veer away from self-interested practices. It dawned on business leaders that corporate culture could in fact prioritize national interests and good wages – that overall prosperity was possible. This what’s-good-for-everyone-is-good-for-us approach is at the heart of democratic capitalism.
This line of thinking continued into the WWII era and beyond as the government took a more cooperative approach with labor unions and regulators. The Committee for Economic Development or CED played a pivotal role, promoting the idea that cost control isn’t the sole route to profitability. This ideological shift resulted in a more moderate form of capitalism, where wages rose, and the economy experienced a level of equality not seen since the mid-19th century. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency reflected this cultural shift, emphasizing economic moderation and compromise between businesses and workers.
Eisenhower was also able to see a bigger picture. In making wise investments in infrastructure, he sacrificed short-term gains in favor of long-term economic growth and prosperity. In many ways, Eisenhower’s policies and investments defied the expectations of a Republican leader. They generally preferred a small government. But Eisenhower’s time in office left an enduring impact that led to transformative changes like the interstate highway system and technological advancements that made post-war America an innovative world power.
Now, there are some contradictions to the rise of the so-called American dream. It can be hard to imagine that the wage disparity between white and Black workers actually shrank during the postwar era. The 1940s and 50s were a time of severe inequality and government-sanctioned racial discrimination. But at the same time, unions became more inclusive in allowing more non-white workers to join. The broad, common good-oriented policies of the postwar era were such that Black families were able to climb the economic ladder in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
However, by the time of the larger civil rights victories in the 1960s, the country was already beginning to shift. Labor unions grew more complacent and corrupt, and the government was going to once again reconsider the benefits of a laissez-faire approach.
A dream in decline
One of the things that kept the American Dream alive in the postwar years was the collective power of the workers’ unions and the government’s general interest in appealing to the working class.
In the 1960s, there was a waning in union power, as well as a question of who was the people’s party – the Democrats or the Republicans?
Wright Mills was a popular author and sociologist who, at the beginning of the 60s, was taking American democracy to task. He believed labor leaders were dropping the ball. He saw that they were growing complacent and all too willing to play a more passive, self-satisfied role in the nation’s corporate landscape.
He also spotted a new, youthful trend in liberal politics, which he helped name: the New Left. Young intellectuals and college students formed the New Left in the 1960s. Spurred on by concerns over nuclear war and the environment, it became a political movement full of ideas and hope for change. But the New Left’s upper-class intellectualism and unwillingness to compromise didn’t connect with the working class of America. This movement essentially alienated the base of voters that the unions had once turned into a major political power.
As a result, the Republicans suddenly seemed like the party of the people. Richard Nixon appealed to the populist vote and the Republicans effectively rebranded themselves. Despite his many controversies, the Nixon presidency embraced moderate economic policies. However, the stage was set for what became known as the Reagan Revolution.
During the 1950s and 60s, new economic ideas were emerging from the prominent lawyer and Yale professor Robert Bork, and a group of economists he influenced known as the Chicago School. Bork and the Chicago School were calling for an end to anti-trust laws and financial regulations. They believed a free, unencumbered market would allow the US to reach new heights, and that it would naturally become self-regulating.
These ideas sat on the back burner for more than a decade until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent oil embargo of the 1970s resulted in a frightening, prolonged economic slump. This opened the door for a new economic plan, which was embraced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. This was a seismic shift in the nation’s economic landscape that saw democratic capitalism get replaced by rough-and-tumble capitalism, leaving working-class Americans feeling marginalized.
During Reagan’s two terms in office, property taxes and income taxes were cut, the financial markets were deregulated, and labor policies were transformed. The kind of investments in infrastructure, education, and public works projects that were cornerstones in previous administrations were gone. While the 80s and 90s were an economic boom, the benefits were unevenly distributed. Much like the decade before the Great Depression, a significant share of the economic gains were flowing to the affluent. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.
In the final section, we’ll look at some of the issues that have kept us more or less locked into the model of rough-and-tumble capitalism and see what could be done to bring back democratic capitalism.
Where do we go from here?
Like the Reagan era, the Clinton presidency of the 1990s was also a time of economic upswing. While Clinton’s tenure has been lauded, looking back, it now joins the ranks of the disappointing modern trend of widening inequality.
Clinton was at heart a neoliberal. As such, he promised benefits for ordinary workers through a mix of free trade, deregulation, and tax credits. Those promises went largely unfulfilled, as incomes for the rich outpaced other groups during his tenure. The neoliberal forces of recent decades, marked by rising trade, increasing corporate concentration, declining unions, reduced regulation, and lower tax rates, contributed to a decline in the share of American economic output going to workers’ wages. All the while, corporate profits surged. By the early 2020s, they now account for over seven percent of national income, up from the postwar average of 5.5 percent, translating to a substantial annual loss for the average family.
Since the 80s and 90s, these trends have continued, and it raises the question of what, if anything, the US can do to shift itself away from rough-and-tumble capitalism and back toward democratic capitalism.
Politics have only gotten more polarized in recent elections, and this has helped neither party in terms of mobilizing the working force as a political power capable of bringing back a more broadly beneficial economy. One of the main issues of recent elections has been immigration. While this is a highly controversial issue, it is one that the Democrats could stand to be more flexible on.
The issue around immigration largely stems from a 1965 immigration law. Despite initial intentions to create fairness in the admission process, the law contained unforeseen loopholes. The initial belief was that immigrants allowed into the US would be specialists who could fill specific job shortages and that the overall number of immigrants wouldn’t significantly increase. But the reality has been that many immigrants tend to be blue-collar workers who’ve been allowed in due to having family members who already reside in the country. And the number did increase.
When the bill was passed, legal immigration stood at around 290,000 annually. That number has risen steadily every year, and in 2001 it exceeded one million for the first time. As a result, the number of foreign-born residents in the US has nearly tripled since the late 60s and is likely to exceed the previous peak of 14.8 percent of the population, which was hit in 1890.
The pros and cons of this immigration wave have been hotly debated for decades, and the argument hasn’t gone away because there have been both pros and cons. The US has benefited from immigration in many ways. It’s enlarged the labor pool and the country’s economic power, and been responsible for numerous innovations and successful businesses. But it’s also unfair to say that there aren’t any consequences to the country’s flawed immigration laws. According to a 600-page report, published in 2017 by the National Academy of Sciences, the US immigration policy has had a significant impact on wages, employment options for the working class, and the declining power of labor unions.
Continuing the trend that began in the 60s with the New Left, today’s liberals tend to be unyielding in their policy positions and more focused on social issues than economic issues. As such, the working class can justifiably end up feeling like their concerns are being largely ignored by the Democrats. Today’s liberals could do a better job of reaching the working class by understanding that it’s possible to be pro-immigrant without being pro-immigration. This should be obvious since many immigrant voters are also concerned about the nation’s weak immigration laws. Embracing this fact alone could bring back many working-class voters who’ve since strayed over to the Republican Party.
Finally, there isn’t much chance of a bright future if the government doesn’t get back to investing like it once did. Since the 1970s, there’s been a steady decline in government spending, especially on programs that benefit the young and working class. This lack of investments is responsible for the country being one of the few that doesn’t have a national paid parental leave program. It has also contributed to higher child poverty rates, challenges in transportation infrastructure, and the decline in women’s participation in the labor force.
The economist John Maynard Keynes once said that the challenge of a thriving economy is to find a balance between economic efficiency, social justice, and individual liberty. This is a challenge that the US came closest to achieving many generations ago. But there is still an opportunity to once again embrace those principles through grassroots movements that take heed of public opinion. We can’t thrive as a nation if we ignore the voices of working-class Americans.
The American dream lies largely in the broad prosperous time that emerged from the Great Depression. At that time, worker’s unions were bestowed power by the government. In the years during and after WWII, corporate leaders embraced broad communal, national interests over their own individual profits. This approach is at the heart of democratic capitalism. But this went out of fashion in the 1970s following an economic crisis. In the 1980s, with the liberal Democrats seeming out of touch with working-class interests, a new more aggressive form of capitalism took over. Since then, economic inequality has increased, with much of the nation’s wealth going to the top percentile. To regain the promise of the American dream, the government must once again harness the power of the working class by listening to their concerns rather than digging ideological trenches that only serve to perpetuate an unhealthy, unbalanced economic agenda.
About the Author
David Leonhardt (@DLeonhardt)