By Penny Smith — January 10, 2018

Our initial founding document, The Declaration of Independence, states that “all men are created equal” and share an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ll leave arguing that Jefferson’s felicitous phrase was true more aspiration than reality for a later time. However, embedded in that second paragraph is the seed of what has become known as the “American Dream.”

Ostensibly anyone, regardless of birth or wealth, deserves a chance to advance their station in life without losing certain fundamental claims to fair treatment, both by the nation and fellow citizens. One of government’s roles in the process is to protect the fairness of that chance.

The United States was, for nearly two hundred years, touted as a “land of opportunity.” At various times in our history our better angels prevailed: universal public education; abolition of slavery; Civil Rights laws; generous pro-immigration laws; freedom to worship as we want; and support of fragile populations. At other times, our meaner dispositions won out: Jim Crow laws; Chinese Exclusion Acts; the McCarthy hearings; sexism; segregated schools; and redlining.

But, in spite of that mixed record, throughout our history, immigrants have continued to come here, hoping for a better life. And we have, in our popular culture, in our pulpits, on our political stages and throughout mass media, touted how exceptional a nation we are.

The “American Dream” implies that anyone who “works hard and plays by the rules” can “make it.” They can have a house, a steady job, adequate protection of their property and health, and access to a middle-class life style. The “land of opportunity” theme extends that dream to the world, opening our gates, in the words of Emma Lazarus, to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

As a nation, we propose at least two assumptions: (1) talent is universal, present throughout our planet’s population and (2) opportunity should, likewise, be universal and fairly available to all. Unfortunately, it appears that those assumptions have run their course. Indeed, they may only have been rhetorical tropes.

Our “isms” and “phobias” express our limited belief in universal talent. Racism claims some races are more gifted than others. Sexism diminishes the value of women. Nativism scorns immigrants. Homophobia privileges a set of gender expectations. “No Irish need apply.” “Whites only.” “Love it or Leave it.” “No Spanish Spoken Here!” Our past is replete with opportunity shortfalls: the KKK; Japanese relocation camps; the Know-Nothing Party; the Redeemer Movement of the late 19th-century; the Red Scare.

The alt-righters of today harken back to a set of ideas we naively thought had been put in the past. Their slogan “Blood and Soil” tells you pretty much all you need to know about how they construct this country. The American Dream, its vaulted opportunity, is reserved for white, native-born, preferably male, folks.

What do we lose with that construction, other than our soul and any claim to being a democracy in the sense implied by our initial idealism? Albert Einstein was an immigrant. So, too, were John Muir; Joseph Pulitzer; Irving Berlin (remember he wrote “God Bless America”); Madeleine Albright; Ayn Rand, paradoxically literary idol of the far right and libertarians; Enrico Fermi; Igor Stravinsky; I.M. Pei; Nikola Tesla; Andrew Carnegie; and Isaac Stern. We’d have also missed the technology revolution ushered in by the likes of immigrants Sergey Brin (Google), Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (You Tube), Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post); and Jan Koum (Whatsapp, now owned by Facebook).

And let’s not forget that our founders were, in every sense, immigrants. John Smith, John Winthrop, Thomas Bradford, Roger Williams – all immigrants. Remember that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and their colleagues were born Englishmen. Alexander Hamilton came from Nevis. The French were instrumental in defeating the British at Yorktown.

The Democratic Party, particularly its southern version, once held a limited idea of talent and opportunity. That changed as the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” flipped the principles of the two major parties. That flip did not create two diametrically opposite groups and the platforms of each remain fluid. However, for now more Democrats believe that talent is universal and opportunities should be fair than Republicans.

A robust democracy rests on those standards. Where there are no minority rights, there is no democracy. Where there is limited access to due process, there is no democracy. Where there is anonymous, purchased corporate speech that drowns out the voices of real people, there is no democracy. Where the stranger is demonized, the poor condemned as personally responsible for their misfortune, and the color of one’s skin determines the likelihood of an arrest or incarceration, there is no democracy. Where we sacrifice clean air, clean water, and natural wonders to the limited benefits of short-term wealth for a few, there is no democracy.

One of our founders favorite words was vigilance. Democracy was fragile. We needed to guard it constantly, vigilantly against poachers. Perhaps we have become too wrapped up in social media, too concerned about ourselves as individuals, too busy trying to get by to be vigilant. I suspect there are some people in Raleigh and Washington DC hoping that’s true. Indeed, there are even some people here in Jackson County that hope we are not paying attention. Where there is no vigilance, where fear trumps hope, there will be no democracy.