American Dream Isn’t Dead, but It Needs Help

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The American dream looms large in the nation’s psyche. Immigrants flock to our shores to make a better life for themselves, free of the chains that bound them in their countries of origin.

Native-born Americans also can achieve the American dream through hard work and determination.

But recently, many have come to view that dream as unattainable. Some view the system as broken and demand massive changes to fix it.

To Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks and author of the new book “America in Perspective: Defending the American Dream for the Next Generation,” that’s a huge problem for the nation’s continued survival.

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“We’ve gone through incredibly challenging times, and this is part of our national history. And people forget that you go through these times,” Brandon says, adding:

What’s scary to me right now, there’s all this debate [over] do we get rid of the [Senate] filibuster? Do we do this? Do we do that? Now, these are radical changes, and in my study of history … you could actually make some changes that will knock out the stability in our system, and who knows what we are then.

Brandon joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the American dream and how we can bring it back from the brink.

We also cover these stories:

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pretends to be handcuffed by police during a pro-abortion protest outside the Supreme Court.
  • The Biden administration backs a bill that would codify the Supreme Court’s decisions to legalize gay and interracial marriage.
  • A New York judge drops murder charges against a bodega worker who fatally stabbed a man who came behind the counter and assaulted him.
  • Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh shares his stance on abortion and the unborn while speaking at a pro-life event.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: My guest today is Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks and author of the new book “America in Perspective: Defending the American Dream for the Next Generation,” available now wherever books are sold. Adam, welcome to the show.

Adam Brandon: Hey, thanks very much for having me. It’s fun to be back here at The Heritage Foundation. I actually got my career started here in 1996; I was an intern in the press shop under a guy named Herb Berkowitz.

Blair: That’s so cool. We always love having people who come from Heritage come back, come back home. But clearly, you’ve gone on to great things and you’re writing this book about the American dream.

Brandon: Right.

Blair: So let’s start out with a base level where we’re at. So what is the state of the American dream right now? Is it in decline? Is it good? Where are we at?

Brandon: I saw a Gallup poll the other day that said that patriotism is the lowest it has ever been in Gallup survey history.

And when I talk to friends and family, and we were talking a little bit before the interview—I come from Cleveland. Well, my family is that swing-vote family back in Northeast Ohio, they go back and forth and they debate issues. And I kind of use them as my one-man polling operation, where I just call and ask them what they think about issues.

And they still love America, but they’re very concerned about the future, and there’s things that they can’t put their finger on it necessarily sometimes, but it just doesn’t feel right, and there’s just so much anger.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start writing this book, is just like, called it. The initial title on a notebook was “American Perspective,” and we’ll come up with a better title later, and just, that’s what the book was about. I wanted to go back in history a little bit and take a look at all of these things that we’ve gone through.

We’ve gone through incredibly challenging times, and this is part of our national history. And people forget that you go through these times. And what I look at it is, as long as you’re committed to a meritocracy, and then as long as you allow the system to self-correct and heal, it does.

And what’s scary to me right now, there’s all this debate on, “Do we get rid of the filibuster? Do we do this? Do we do that?” Now, these are radical changes, and in my study of history, and we wanted to get into this in this book, is that you could actually make some changes that will knock out the stability in our system, and who knows what we are then.

Blair: The American dream, at least to me, has always been an economic thing, where you come to America and you are able to pull yourself up by your bootstrap, so to say, and become successful.

Brandon: Right.

Blair: Are we seeing that a lot of these things that are risking the American dream being possible are coming from big government, or where are these coming from?

Brandon: I’m going to slightly parse out what you just said there, because I think when you take a step back—when I was raised, I come from a typical immigrant family. I have Czech ancestors, that’s very interesting to me. We came to Cleveland because Czechs drink beer and make beer barrels, and when Johnny Rockefeller opened up his oil refineries, you needed to put the oil in something, so that’s why my ancestors came to Cleveland, just to make beer barrels for oil.

… The stories we have are not nice—it’s flop houses, and violence, and pollution, and this and that. But you had people like my dad who worked. My dad went to dental school during the day and at night he polished airplane landing gear. And so it’s this incredible story of American renewal.

… To me, the American dream isn’t just about the finances because if it’s just about finances, well, do you really need a democracy then?

I mean, because China, things are getting better and money’s getting better. It’s more about this freedom to dream is what I think about the American dream. It’s that if you really want to do something, whatever it is you wanted to do, you can do.

And I once lived in Eastern Europe, and I was shocked when I was talking to my girlfriend about this concept that we take for granted. When you’re a child and your parents ask you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Well, where she lived, her family tended to run the bus trams and things like that in that town. And that’s kind of what they did.

So to me, that is the American dream, it’s a sense of hope, it’s a sense of opportunity. Oh yeah, and the incredible economics, that is a derivative of having that freedom.

Blair: So to expand on that then, where is that coming under fire? You mentioned that patriotism is at an all-time low, and all these problems are popping up. Where are we seeing that happen? Is it big government? Is it world corporations? Where is this coming from?

Brandon: I think it’s, to me, yes to everything you just said, but let’s go back a little further.

I think for my entire career, I’m 44 now, so I’ve been in this industry for a little while, and everyone was always focused on liberalism on college campuses, which is important, but we didn’t realize what was actually happening in preschool, second grade, eighth grade, and some of the indoctrination that was happening to kids when they were younger. And we never really suspected that. And now what you’re seeing is the result of an education that’s focusing on all of our ills.

I think you need to teach slavery, you need to teach the ills of that, you need to teach what happened to Indians, and I’m not trying to hide from any of that. But you also need to teach the opportunity and the overcoming in America. Whether you’re black, you’re white, you’re Native America, you’re whatever you are, it’s been this incredible story of overcoming.

And if you teach that, then all of a sudden you could put everything into perspective. Yes, we’ve had these parts that are not great in our history to say the least, but we’re improving on it. If you weren’t improving upon these things, it’d be one thing. But I think, unfortunately, people are being told one side of the story, and that’s why we wanted to write this book.

… To be very clear, I run a group, FreedomWorks, we’re pretty conservative, but this book is not written for our base necessarily. This book is written for our base’s friends and our base’s children, to hand something off, to be like, “This is not trying to be a right-wing, ‘go vote Republican’—no, let’s just talk honestly about our country and the good and the bad.”

We try to highlight a woman who is in the Gilded Age who was dominating on Wall Street; a guy named Robert Smalls, a slave who ran away and freed his family and became a millionaire. Just this incredible story. There’s all these incredible stories that are of overcoming.

And I want to make sure that we’re talking about those folks. Because if America’s future is about overcoming and people who come here, it’s about overcoming these obstacles and chasing your dreams, we’re going to be all right.

Blair: It sounds like your book is more trying to highlight a lot of these people who represent the best parts of America, as opposed to saying, “Hey, the American dream is real. Just trust us on it.”

Brandon: Right. And I think it’s important to look back.

And I thought, this was years ago, the first couple times I would go and speak to a mostly black audience, if I would start the speech by saying, “Hey, slavery didn’t matter,” I mean, the room would get upset at me. If I said, “Look, slavery was real, but I’m here to talk to you about my values and how what I believe can help break cycles of generational poverty,” all of a sudden the room was engaged and everyone’s talking.

And it’s like that’s where we need to be, rather than focusing on things that divided us in the past. It’s like, “Hey, how can we help each other today?”

In the book we mention—it’s stunning. When you look at the statistics of Nigerian immigrants to this country, and Nigerian immigrants are obviously black, they do exceptionally well. But what is being prioritized? Well, family, education, just the values that are happening in those communities. … Do they experience racism? I guarantee you they do at some level, but they overcome and they succeed.

And that’s what’s so beautiful about this country, as you see these groups that are succeeding. And I just want to get try and get to new audiences this message, anyone can succeed here.

Blair: I want to point out what you just said, which was that these Nigerian immigrants are very successful.

Brandon: They’re like the most successful subgroup in the country.

Blair: Right.

Brandon: Not very successful, the most successful.

Blair: Right. And there is this idea that immigrants are coming to a country and that the country is terrible, at least if what you believe is from the left. But is there any indication that the immigrant community in America feels as if the American dream is now somehow unattainable?

Brandon: Well, what’s fascinating, if that was the truth, then why are people still risking life to come here? And this has been a beautiful part of our history. And again, they’re not coming here for our national parks and all that, they’re coming here because there’s an opportunity to improve their state and their life.

I have incredible stories from my ancestors. I had a 14-year-old ancestor who his mother packed him up in Germany and sent him here to the United States—14 years old. And he ended up becoming a very successful person, but he never saw his mom again.

And I think about, I have a young child at home, and the love of your child to actually say, “I’m going to send you away to a foreign country that you actually have a shot [in].” Well, I think that still plays out today, and we see that.

And I think often we need to talk more to our recent immigrants who are coming here because when you do talk to them, my, they see they come here for a reason. And some of the conversations I’ve had there’s a lot I’ve head shaking, like, “What is going on? Why are you guys so upset with yourselves? This is still the place you go.”

Blair: Right. Where do we think that that sort of comes from it? It seems like it could have bubbled out of maybe the last couple of years, where this internal hatred of everything the country stands for, where did that come from?

Brandon: So, I taught high school for one year. And when I taught high school, I picked up the textbook and it was terrible, it was just so boring. See, American history is this beautiful, complex mosaic, and you made it as boring as you can.

So I brought in my own readings from a lot of different authors that I like. And then I brought in this book, Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of [the United States],” which was basically, I mean, how do I say it, it’s a socialist, if not communist, view of the United States.

And so we would read the chapter from the book that was assigned, then my readings, and then they would have Howard Zinn’s readings, because I never wanted anyone to say that I was trying to indoctrinate anyone.

Blair: Right.

Brandon: But what I think happened is that the readings have been moved. So the only thing that people are reading is now Howard Zinn.

I think that when I just look back, somewhere along—so remember I said I interned here in the ’90s. You had this post-Cold War era of almost era of good feelings, where we felt safe, we didn’t have to worry about nuclear war anymore, the economy was pretty strong and growing, and there was this optimistic view that we’re going to solve our problems.

And I think what happened is that there’s that adjustment to the end of this post-Cold War era. And I think the rise of China has rattled us and I think 9/11 rattled us. There’s a lot of things that rattled us, and out of that post-Cold War era. And I think part of the problem that happened is some of those insecurities that happened after the ’07 crash.

And you have a whole generation of millennials who were raised in nothing but, not that era of the ’90s of incredible optimism, but they were raised in fear of terrorist attacks, then the fear of the economics of post-2007. And that instability in history always shows us that that gives rise to a lot of crazy ideas. And I think that maybe broke open something.

But the good news is, even in lefty places like San Francisco—recalling the district attorney who was just letting everyone out on the streets, and the rampant drug use, and you just name it—I think you’re beginning to see this reevaluation again.

Why I wanted to write a book right now, to put all this in perspective. And when I was growing up in Ohio, one thing I grew up with was so beautiful—my uncles were all blue-collar steel-working Democrats and my father raised me more as a Republican, but we all got along.

Blair: Yeah.

Brandon: We all played horseshoes. And these guys were the most patriotic men you’ve ever met in your life. And I can’t wait to get back to a point where I’m arguing with Democrats and everyone, but we all agree that it’s a great place and we’re trying to make it better. And that’s what I think we’re missing right now.

Blair: Mm-hmm. One of the things that, to maybe play devil’s advocate slightly, is that all of those stories are from the past. And people in my generation, millennials are very concerned with their lot in life. I hear constantly people say things like, “Oh, well, my dad worked part time at the steel mill and was able to buy a house and raise a family on that salary whereas people who are my generation are unable to even buy coffee.”

Brandon: Well, again, I go back to, you look at the shifts that have happened. And my wife is a little younger than me, and she doesn’t remember the Berlin Wall coming down. I mean, to me, I was grounded and my dad put a TV in my room so I could watch it. But she has no reference point to that.

And I think that what I really feel bad about is the amount of college debt that so many people have. And I think there is this understanding that you work hard, you play by the rules. And a lot of people have worked hard, played by the rules, and they’re still living in their parents’ basement.

So I think that’s why. But I wanted to look at the past to try and take the temperature down, like, we’ve been through these hard times, but also lay out our strengths for the future.

And even some of the things in this book I wanted to talk about, I think that we have an over-focus on college. It is amazing to me the opportunities we have for people to go out, get a trade, but I’m also thinking of, do you really need to go to college right after you graduate high school? Can you take some time to go learn something and then go back?

But I also wanted to show in this book for younger folks, is that, “Hey, we’ve been through really hard things and we come out of it. If we agree on a common sense of values and principles—” And if you don’t do that, well, then I pointed out what happened in Argentina. Argentina, not that long ago, was one of the richest countries in the world, bad policy screwed it up, and now they’re a has-been.

Blair: Mm-hmm. It does seem like there is this question of values and how that impacts the greater success of a nation. What are some things that we can be doing right now to turn that tide back to valuing things that make the American dream possible?

Brandon: I love the internet, trust me. I’m not a Luddite who say we need to go bash and break up our phones or anything like that. But it is amazing to me that how much of our discourse is now based on 240 characters. And you can hide behind it behind the internet.

I remember when I was in college in the ’90s, there was a great book called “Bowling Alone.” And what Robert Putnam said is that it’s bad for democracy when people start to spend more time by themselves and not interacting with other people in their community.

Well, I think that’s something, younger generations are incredibly social. Well, I’m hoping that the internet can become something that doesn’t mean that you stay in your basement tweeting at people, but it actually gives you an opportunity to connect with other communities and work with and get to know folks. But what I’m really hoping, and my advice to anyone is, take the politics down.

I love NFL football, it drives me nuts. I mean, that’s one of those places, when I go to a Cleveland Browns Backers bar, black, white, fat, thin, doesn’t matter what you are, we’re all hugging on each other, and it’s this incredible nonpolitical community.

And I think that maybe younger generations think that every community has to be political. No, no, no. Not everything in America has to be political. We can be political when politics is time, but outside of that, we’re Americans on a great adventure, and let’s go enjoy it.

For all of our problems, it’s a great country. I had a great weekend. I think of my neighbors, and the barbecue, and going to the pool, and just having some great community. That’s 99% of my life. And getting ticked off on politics is actually not the majority of my life.

Blair: I want to wrap-up on that because I do think that’s a really important point. We are starting to see Americans get a little more fatigued by everything being political. Sports is a perfect arena where it’s not enough now that it needs to be a game, it has to have a political message to it, whether that’s a Colin Kaepernick or whether it’s the black national anthem being played before a game. Do you think we are moving in the direction as a country, where people are starting to say, “Not everything has to be political”?

Brandon: Well, I think [what] happens, you get to these inflection points. It’s kind of like you swing this way, then you swing that way. But when you get to that top of that inflection, one or two things happen, the pendulum either swings back or keeps on going.

And so we’re at one of those moments where I think we are deciding—and look, I don’t want to quote Rahm Emanuel here, but don’t let a crisis go to waste. But you look at the gas prices and inflation, this is the result of policy. So younger generations that are struggling to buy that first house, now policy is making that harder. And so I think we have an opportunity to have a conversation.

But look, my brand of politics isn’t name-calling and isn’t aggressive as some others, so I’m hoping that my voice can be one of those that’s more like, “Hey, I’d rather take the temperature down and talk some of these things through.”

But I’m looking at our nation’s past and I am 100% certain that you have this swing group in the middle of politics, in the suburbs, they don’t want to tear everything down.

They may be different from previous generations, and change is going to happen, there’s no doubt about it, and people will look different and maybe act different, and their jobs are—my parents still don’t know what I do for a living, and I try and explain it to them. They either think of lobbyists or politicians, they don’t understand the nonprofit world.

But I think that there’s enough people there in the center who are going to look at it, and be like, “They are invested in the American dream. They’re invested for their children and their families.” And I think that group is going to swing. They may never identify as conservative, but I think they are going to be more receptive to what our message is, and that is going to be when you start seeing this pivot back.

Blair: That was Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks and author of the new book “America in Perspective: Defending the American Dream for the Next Generation,” available now wherever books are sold. Adam, thank you so much for your time.

Brandon: We didn’t even get into football. I mean, I thought we were going to talk football here, and he had me talk about my book. I guess it was a fun interview.

Blair: We try, we try.

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