Preserving the American Dream

Published 9:25 am Friday, November 22, 2013

[Editor’s note: This op-ed piece initially was published in The Free Lance-Star, and is being reprinted with permission from the governor’s office.]

For centuries, the lure of the American Dream has brought immigrants to our shores to achieve great things. It’s the dream that inspired my grandfather to immigrate to America from Ireland a century ago. It rejects the old idea that we are destined by birth, class, race or creed to a determined outcome in life. Instead, this dream offers an aspirational, optimistic view — espousing the idea that by fully utilizing one’s unique God-given talents and eschewing excuses, there is no limit to what one can achieve for oneself and others.

From Thomas Jefferson’s principled defense of the dream in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to James Truslow’s popular definition of the dream in “The Epic of America” in 1931, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful advancement of the dream for all based on the “content of one’s character,” every generation of Americans has understood the exceptional and unique nature of opportunity in America. Our historic experiment in self-government presupposes a moral and entrepreneurial people, whose benevolence and industriousness can achieve the impossible within a properly limited constitutional government.

Today, for millions of people across Virginia and the country, their confidence in living the American Dream is, sadly, slipping away. For all our technological advancements, for all our successes, we live in an era of unprecedented uncertainty. If disquieting recent polls are to be believed, more people than ever are expressing doubt about their opportunity to achieve the great American Dream. They worry about their finances, home ownership, jobs and their freedom. They are concerned that marriage today is less popular, meaning greater instances of child poverty. They fear they won’t be able to afford college for their kids.

What’s more, people appear to have lost faith in a key element of the dream: the belief that the country we leave for our children will be better than the one we experienced. Recent polling from the Washington Post-Miller Center shows that only 39 percent of Americans believe their children will have a better life than they have.

Most Americans express doubts in the federal government’s ability to solve problems. Fractious partisan debates in Washington have inhibited the ability to improve the lives of Americans, by giving them more national debt, less freedom and opportunity and more economic and regulatory burdens. The government has become too large and tries to do too much, and does too much of it in a mediocre way. There’s little trust that the federal government can do anything substantive to bolster the people’s ability to achieve the American Dream. As federal power and programs expand, many citizens feel the government is chipping away at the dream, not protecting it.

There is an opportunity for state governments, the private sector and the faith community to lead. Outside Washington, creative solutions are implemented in ways that improve the hopes Americans have for themselves and their children. We have seen this in Virginia. In areas which called out for reform–education, energy, transportation, pension system and spending–Virginia has gotten results where Washington has failed.

We have made dramatic reforms in K-12 education to improve choice, rigor and accountability, embracing the vision of attaining the dream through the schoolhouse door, regardless of ZIP code or social status. Virginia has made significant balanced environmental improvements in air, water, and waste, while increasing job growth and economic prosperity. Major new reforms and investments in transportation infrastructure and higher education provide the foundation for success for future generations.

As Ronald Reagan once wrote, we have “strayed a great distance from our Founding Fathers’ vision of America. They regarded the central government’s responsibility as that of providing national security, protecting our democratic freedoms and limiting the government’s intrusion in our lives — in sum, the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They never envisioned vast bureaucracies in Washington telling our farmers what to plant, our teachers what to teach, our industries what to build. They believed in keeping government as close as possible to the people.”

Private sector leaders in business, philanthropy, civic and religious groups and elsewhere must reassert their prominent roles in the lifeblood of the nation. Where government has systematically encroached for a century, it must be constrained to preserve individual opportunity.

The building blocks of the American Dream remain the same as the day the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence 237 years ago. America is a great land in which we do not guarantee equal outcomes, but we steadfastly guarantee equal opportunities. Hard work, big dreams, personal responsibility, savings and frugality and following the Golden Rule are still the ingredients to success. They are the pathway back to the American Dream.

Bob McDonnell is governor of Virginia.