The topic was whether to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. The talk show host addressed the issue by asking a question that he clearly saw as rhetorical. "Who doesn't want to be rich?" he asked, the inference being that a country that refrains from imposing a marginal increase in taxes on its wealthiest citizens is one where it would be easier to become rich.
In framing the issue in this manner he was applying an especially American perspective, the notion that politics is not a matter of who we are, but rather who we want to be. But he was also peddling a seductive but sometimes misleading assumption, namely that the interests of our present and future selves are aligned. In reality, voters might increase their chances of becoming the person they want to be if they thought first of what they need to get there. To pick an obvious example, the student who aspires to becoming a tycoon stands a much better chance of success if she attends a well-funded school system.
On the other hand the radio host knew his audience well. This is after all a country of immigrants where everybody is here because somewhere along the line somebody in their family decided, either out of necessity or ambition, to leave behind everything that defined them in exchange for a new identity. In the American Dream the central character is the person you want to become, not the person you are.
But the crux of our problems these days is that these different versions of ourselves are not just opposite ends of a personal journey but essentially different people who can be at odds with each other. So while we continue to make the individual sacrifices that we hope will help us become the people we want to be, we make collective decisions about our public finances that show a callous disregard for our future selves. In the end the sad irony may be that a shirking of mutual responsibility, that was marketed as a way to make the American Dream a reality, may in the end frustrate the efforts of many Americans to live that dream.
With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.