Middle-class Americans’ anxieties and the shift in how they define the American Dream had consequences for the 2012 election. Romney spoke in the language of economic risk: “The promise of America has always been that if you worked hard, had the right values, took some risks, that there was an opportunity to build a better life for your family and for your next generation.” Compare that with Obama describing the “basic bargain in America,” a formulation he has used since his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004: “If you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to find a good job, feel secure in your community, and support a family.” So, which guy won?
But if the American Dream, and the understanding of what it means to be middle class, is changing, the reverberations will go far beyond a single election. They speak to the very story Americans tell about themselves. We were once a nation of strivers, raised on Horatio Alger and Bill Gates, confident of the possibility of moving upward. If Americans now aim simply to avoid slipping backward, they will have decided that the American Dream is but a reverie.
In this week's National Journal special Next Economy issue cover story, Amy Sullivan takes a look at the state of the middle class. In the video above, get inside the story with the author herself.