A New National Narrative

Former U.S. senator David Boren tells us how America’s youth could save the day

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This article is part of a package on the American Dream. For more, read Reimagining the American Dream, Dreaming Across Class Lines, Tear Down the White Picket Fence, and The Pursuit of Square Footage.

When David Boren retired from the U.S. Senate in 1994, he left knowing that the bipartisan collegiality he and his fellow lawmakers had enjoyed behind closed doors for most of his 15-year stay was already being subverted by a meaner, decidedly less sensible brand of brinksmanship. What the former Democratic chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence didn’t foresee was how quickly the legislative branch’s moderate center would be silenced by an increasingly polarized media, where compromise reads as retreat and demagoguery passes for patriotism. Then again, no reasonable person could have imagined that George Bush senior, with whom Boren says he still has a close relationship, would see his least talented son serve two presidential terms and systematically reject his father’s pragmatic, albeit paternalistic, foreign agenda.

Troubled by the economic instability, global hostility, and domestic cynicism that threaten to hang over—and hang up—the next administration, Boren holed up for 45 days early last summer and, in what he describes as a “fever pitch,” penned A Letter to America (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).

Decidedly less conservative than its author’s reputation, the call to action scolds both political parties for their hardheadedness, lack of historical perspective, and wishful insistence that the United States can be both lawless bully and beloved beacon. Then, taking a cue from a new generation of engaged students at the University of Oklahoma, where he has served as president since 1994, Boren challenges all citizens to think creatively and act communally.

Utne Reader caught up with Boren in early March to find out why the writer and educator, despite all the bad news, believes it isn’t too late to reimagine America.

 

Near the end of your book, you write about our “national story.” What role does the American Dream play in that story?

It plays a leading role. We’ve always been a tomorrow people. We’ve been very self-confident, believed in our future, and by nature have been problem solvers. I live in a part of the country that was literally settled in runs: They fired a shot and people rushed out to claim land. Those were people who didn’t really come with any possessions; they came with their hopes and dreams and believed if they worked hard and did the right things they could pass on a better world for their children and grandchildren.

One of the things that shocked me and really shook me [before writing the book] was reading a poll that said almost two-thirds of the American people felt that our future would not be as great as our past. I saw that and wanted to shout out, That’s un-American! It’s totally the opposite of what defines us. When you go back and see what historians, sociologists, and others have written, they often judge the strength of a society by how much it believes in its future.

 

You’ve argued that the middle class is the glue that holds society together. How is that class changing for better and for worse?

Well, the fate of that class is a real hot spot of anger right now. The group that’s gone from optimistic to pessimistic is made up of middle-class people who either find themselves on the verge of falling down or already have. It’s shrinking to such a terrible extent. We literally doubled the purchasing power of the average American family in the 28 years following World War II, and it’s been flat or declining ever since. Consider the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and Ford administrations: All through that whole period, the top 10 percent of the country had about 30 percent of the income; now they have 50 percent. The top one-tenth of 1 percent averaged a $4 million increase in their incomes last year, while the bottom 90 percent lost purchasing power. As the New York Times recently wrote on their editorial page: It’s been the greatest misdistribution of income since 1929. And it didn’t end well that time.

 

You also point out that the lower middle class is less economically mobile. What does all of this do to us as a country?

It translates into cynicism. And cynicism is corrosive. The good news is that, just in the past few months, we’ve seen the beginnings of one of the healthiest elections in recent memory. People are getting off their sofas again. Young people are starting to feel like they can get involved.

 

Do today’s young people, especially those you encounter at the University of Oklahoma, still believe in an American Dream? Do they even think in those terms anymore?

I think they do, but their dream strikes me as much less materialistic. They want to live in a place where people respect each other without regard to their differences—racial, religious, or whatever it might be. They want to live in a safe place. They want to have enough to give their children good educations and opportunities, of course, but it’s a more modest economic dream than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, which tended to measure success materially.

Today’s young people have the opportunity to be the greatest generation yet. They want to be better stewards. Part of their American Dream involves a country that’s more environmentally healthy, more pristine. And, maybe most importantly, they really want to recreate community.

 

Talk more about community. It’s an increasingly popular concept among change makers, but would it really affect the political landscape?

Oh, it totally changes it. There are fewer hot buttons that can be pushed by political candidates that hit code words for racist or classist or religious difference. Why was the “greatest generation” of Americans so great? Because it was a real community. The people who lived at that time went from being bankers to being street people. They lived through the Depression. They lived through the war. When you sit in a foxhole with people who don’t look like you, are you going to tell them they can’t eat next to you or live next to you when you get home? No. It’s the shared experiences that make us Americans first.

 

That war also informed how America approached the world stage, for better and for worse. How must we reshape our global vision in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Future generations are going to live in a multipolar world. There are going to be three or four, maybe five, major centers of power that will, over time, be more and more equal economically. And we have only 6 percent of the populace.

Part of the classic American Dream is that we’re the leaders of the world, the modern-day Romans. The new dream: We should be first among equals, the leading nation but not the dominant nation. We should lead by listening some of the time; we do that poorly now. We should lead by forming more genuine partnerships; lead by our values, our ideas, and our diplomatic skills; lead by retaining enough military strength to remain a force. As a nation, we want to be first among several leaders.

 

It seems that we’re at a truly pivotal moment.

I would put it this way: We can’t afford to waste another decade. If we do, the consequences will be dire. We’re not going to dig out of where we are overnight, but a decade is the outside we have. If we don’t move, we’ll pivot in the wrong direction. And we might not ever recover ourselves.