State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

We, Them, and the American Dream

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, I thought Antisemitism had somehow died along with six million Jews in the Holocaust. I saw the identification numbers tattooed on the grownups on the summer sands in Brighton Beach, but I thought the attack was over. I am an American Jew who believed I had nothing to fear and that Antisemitism was history.

I was wrong.

As a young anti-war and anti-racism activist in high school, I thought that we had American racism on the run and just like we would leave Vietnam, we would create the just society my friends and I saw as inevitable. When I went to college in Indiana, I discovered that there was a different America outside of Brooklyn. But when those Hoosiers rose up against Richard Nixon in 1974 I felt that as Martin Luther King taught us, the broad arc of history tilted toward justice. I’m not so sure any more. American culture today is different and more tolerant than the one I grew up in, but something called white nationalism is a quietly growing force in American politics. President Trump legitimizes those racists and it terrifies me to think that an American president would characterize even one of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia as a “good person”. What a shameful, if no longer unexpected, spectacle.

I don’t understand how the country I was born in and deeply love could separate children from parents at our border―for any reason. How could America “house” children in fenced in facilities with inadequate health care? How did Congress become so dysfunctional that our operational immigration policy is to actively threaten hardworking immigrants with deportation? How did we end up with a president who has lied more than 10,000 times in less than three years? That can’t be the America whose president once called this country a “nation of immigrants”. Who challenged us to ask what we could do for our country and who set a national goal of reaching the moon in less than a decade―not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Is this the nation of FDR, Ike, JFK, and Barack Obama? Would Ronald Reagan be too moderate for today’s Trump base? Could our president say, as FDR did, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself?” Our current president feeds off fear. I understand the economic stress and cultural elitism that has driven people against “insiders” and toward Donald Trump. I understand the reaction to self-righteous, arrogant government bureaucrats. But I don’t understand the intensity of the hatred and the willingness to tolerate its expression. The Americans I’ve lived with in Indiana, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and New York City were “kinder and gentler” than that. In my city, people carry baby carriages up subway stairs; all over America I see acts of kindness that don’t square with the evil and indifference toward immigrants and people of color that I fear we are becoming numb to.

Attacks on places of worship, schools, public spaces, and on people who do not look like “we do” have become so commonplace they are almost not news. The nation is split and leaders willing to remind us of our shared values are being shouted down by those who hope to achieve power by emphasizing our differences. All over the world authoritarian nationalists are rising. I take refuge in polling that seems to indicate that this is not a global majority (yet).

What will the future bring? Is this the last dying gasp of a nationalism that will soon be overwhelmed by the technology and economic momentum of globalism? Or is this a deeply felt objection to an elite unwilling to share wealth and increasingly separate from the real world experienced by most people. And will that anti-elitism result in a reaction against “others” that will harm people of color, religious minorities, and anyone who becomes the target of a frightened and emboldened majority? Will the populist revolt result in greater democracy or the replacement of a technological elite with an authoritarian elite?

These forces and counterforces seem to be characterized by the absence of empathy and feeling for those with less power. The goal is to get in charge so you can crush your opponents. Consensus building and a search for shared values seems to be replaced by the effort to draw lines in the sand and to win. In that sense, Donald Trump is the symbolic leader of a world-wide movement pursuing self-interest and personal gain at any cost.

Can we have the advantages of technology and a global economy without extreme inequality? How can the billionaires and the techno-plutocrats be held accountable by nation states operating in a global economy? Note the corporate reaction to Trump’s trade war against China. The latest strategy is to make sure the final product is made somewhere else. The supply chain can still be 75 percent Chinese, but how can tariffs be applied if the final product is made in Vietnam? If America taxes rich people who seek to evade taxation, all they need to do is hide their money in a lower tax country. National sovereignty is made less effective by technology and the economic power of the global economy. How can communities rule themselves if nation states can’t control their own destiny? The unemployed factory worker in Wisconsin is reacting to all of this when he or she first votes for Barack Obama and then votes for Donald Trump. They are saying anyone who seems to be an outsider is better than the people who are now running things.

The complexity of the economic, political, and cultural forces we face cannot be understated. It’s clear that the road maps we used to follow are less useful today. We see massive U.S. federal deficits and low inflation. Trade wars and Brexit are one response to this complexity. But so too is a blind unthinking fear that legitimizes violence and hatred. When we do not understand something complicated, we look for and even long for a simple explanation or some type of answer.

The forces of modernity, such as low-cost communication, information, and travel, are strong and creating elements of a single global culture. The Korean pop song of the hour is heard all over the planet. The new jeans style shown in Paris is soon in Singapore. But these same forces are creating winners and losers: both real and perceived. The losers and those who feel they will lose are the raw material that extremists of all stripes feed off of. Some people fear that the old culture we thrived under will be replaced by something new and less advantageous. This leads to the distinction between “we” and “them”.

The American Dream, “from many, one” is how we built what JFK called “a nation of immigrants”. We maintained our distinctiveness in a nation that permitted differences while insisting we learn how to be people we called Americans. But the definition of “American” is far from static. American culture is consistently changing as new immigrants come and their food, music and way of life influences the broader culture: from tacos to bagels to pizza to sushi; from classical to jazz to country to rock and roll. My Columbia colleague, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, calls it a “gorgeous mosaic”. Up close each tile is distinct, but from a distance a beautiful coherent picture emerges. We need to get back to that version of the American Dream. The generous, giving, compassionate country that is strong enough to lend a helping hand to those less well off. The America willing to take in endangered refugees, and the one that reunites children and parents and would never separate them. We need a balance between community and individual, local and global, public and private. We need to search for that balance in peace with civility and dialogue, not nasty and violent words and deeds.


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Jeffrey Potent
Jeffrey Potent
5 years ago

Dear Professor Cohen:

Thank you for your essay today, which is thoughtful and far reaching in raising deep concerns and, at the end, envisioning a hopeful path forward. In contemplating the America that most Americans embody and that we hope to be in our totality, I read your piece with immediate concerns for the human rights of the people of Hong Kong. I fear that at some point, if Hong Kong citizens continue to demand democracy and freedom, China will have enough of it and the tanks will roll in. In the context of your essay, that point of Chinese repression is not predetermined. It will be set based on the anticipated downside of international condemnation. Unfortunately, such condemnation may well be tempered by the growing authoritarian nationalism, as you profile, in your essay, here and abroad. A strong America that truly embodies democratic principles and fair play would stand as a strong deterrent to the tanks rolling into Hong Kong, or Taiwan, Ukraine, Poland, et. al. Indeed, a stronger deterrent than John Bolton and Mike Pompeo’s saber rattling.


Jeffrey Potent
Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs
Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, and the Earth Institute, Center for Environmental Sustainability