How The Great Recession Killed My Family’s American Dream
And why the American dream is better off dead
My mother was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and voting, or any kind of political participation, is discouraged by her religion. So when she told me that she had registered to vote in 2016, I nearly dropped my phone in the sink.
“What made you register,” I asked her.
Her answer: “I like Bernie.”
In my predominately white working class family, livelihoods have been made in oil fields and on construction sites; in the service industry and the unemployment line. We fit the profile of Donald Trump’s voters. But the only candidate that any of us were excited about was Bernie Sanders.
To me, the reason seemed obvious. While president Obama had staved off the national financial crisis, not much had changed for people like us.
In 2008, I became the first person in my family to go to college. I still remember packing up the car with my mother and sitting in the passenger seat as she drove us from our home in Ventura, CA., to my college in Santa Fe, NM. When we had unloaded everything into my dorm room, a new feeling flooded over me. It felt like I’d been hooked to the conveyor belt of upward mobility. I believed I was on the four-year path to my American dream. Like so many others like her, my mother cried as I hugged her goodbye, and she drove off proud that her son had made that upward leap that had seemed insurmountable to the generations before me.
I believed I’d never have to put on a hard hat to make a living. I believed that I would be the first Sinclair male to support his family without breaking down his body day after day, year after year. I believed that what I had achieved was perpetuating an arc of progress that started somewhere in the New Mexican dust my grandfather was raised on, and the Oklahoma plains my great-grandmother was swept off of in the Dust Bowl, and that would continue with my children firmly establishing their own American dream.
I maintained this optimism despite the looming recession. But as the year progressed, what I heard on the news began to leech into our lives.
When I enrolled for the fall semester, I expected to study the classics and fill my head with high-minded ideas. Instead, I learned about sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, the housing bubble and T.A.R.P. And as the economic engine — and that conveyor belt upon which I’d been hitched — came to a halt, I rediscovered the fragility of the American dream.
By January, 2009, Mom’s work went downhill. Contracts for her construction company dried up as new projects in California grew ever more scarce. She worked furlough, cutting her own paycheck so that she could continue to pay the laborers.
It wasn’t long after that when the welding company my father was working for started making cuts for the same reason. He was among the many that were let go.
And then, in June, my college declared bankruptcy. I packed everything into my 1989 Crown Victoria and drove back across the country, feeling that sense of upward mobility dissipating with every passing mile. I returned home, as uncertain of my future education as my parents were of how they would continue to pay their bills.
The hardest part was seeing my father — who had been working in gruelling manual labor since he left high school at sixteen to work at his father’s wrought iron shop — sit at home with a look of complete loss. When he was sixteen, or twenty, or thirty, he might have felt like he had the energy to weather the changing tides. But every time I visited him, or spoke to him on the phone, I got the sense that he felt he’d been bucked out of the working world for the last time.
“Son,” he told me, over and over, “your father is an example of how not to be.”
Every time he said those words to me, I wanted to tell him that how much I admired how hard he worked, how dedicated he was to his craft — how proud I was to come from a line of generations of skilled iron workers. But I knew that he was speaking to a bleak and unavoidable truth. He was pushing fifty, and he had no way of knowing if his fortunes would rise when the recovery finally came. He remained stoic, but he had to swallow a lot of pride.
“Get an education, Son. Don’t do the kind of work your father does. Be a banker.”
I looked with hope to Obama. I dreamed of a Rooseveltian pivot to the left for my country. I thought that the catastrophic failure of Wall Street and the big banks would force the restructuring of our financial sector. I wanted stimulus spending. I wanted massive infrastructure projects. I wanted a bail-out of the American people. I wanted to see starched white collars behind bars.
But what ended up happening was a scaled back, incremental approach, working from the top down.
The Bush administration set that precedent with the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which bailed out the banks responsible for the meltdown at the expense of the people. But it continued under Obama, as stimulus packages and infrastructure projects were proposed in congress and then stymied and watered down by republicans and blue-dog democrats. American citizens on both sides of the aisle watched this process and realized that their homes, their jobs, their interests, were secondary priorities to the people who were elected to represent them.
There’s no need to re-hash the last eight years. The economy improved slowly, day by day, month by month, year by year, until we reached where we are now — the new economic normal, where the cost of college remains prohibitively high and wages remain roughly the same as they were in the ‘90’s. And in those years, congress doubled down on inaction, partisanship and their reliance on special interests. By the time the 2016 election came around, no one believed that either party’s favorite sons and daughters really represented the will of the people.
How could we believe it? In 2016, while bonus pay for corporate executives had broken pre-recession records, my mother was still working full time at severely reduced pay. As for my father, he remained unemployed for over a year, despite doing everything he could to make himself competetive. He took adult ed classes and earned his GED. He cold-called for jobs, and went to community college so that he could retrain himself to be a computer-aided draftsman.
I thought of him every time I read the news or listened to the radio and heard that there was a new fight in congress over whether or not to once again extend unemployment benefits. How could our representatives, whose salaries and health insurance were paid for out of my parents’ pockets, have the audacity to debate whether or not to extend unemployment benefits? How disconnected had they become from their districts that they couldn’t see the able-bodied, hard-working people standing sheepishly and ashamed in unemployment lines? Did our representatives think that my dad was collecting those checks by choice?
Did they think about him at all?
Through dogged pursuit, my father finally managed to find a job in 2010, in the still languid oil industry, against a tide of younger, more educated applicants. But even now he has just managed to stay above water, earning less money than he used to amidst historically low oil prices and a series of spills along the southern California coast, and working without health insurance, choosing to pay the fine on his taxes because the cost of insurance is too high.
Meanwhile, others in my family have been struggling to pay bills and support their children with low-wage part-time jobs. Some have become trapped in the opioid epidemic. Others have found that their lack of education is holding them back from any job worth doing.
The fact is, for a large swath of the country, the recovery never happened. They never got their house back. The factories that automated to survive the recession didn’t look for ways to hire new people when they recovered. And the people who lost good jobs only emerged to find shitty part-time jobs earning minimum wage. In that environment, many of us couldn’t appreciate the progress that had been made. Marriage equality, criminal justice reform, the closing of CIA black sites — these things don’t mean much when the bank that you bailed out has just sent you a third foreclosure notice.
And into the fray, enter Bernie Sanders. I still remember watching the video of him with his shock of wild gray hair, leaning begrudgingly into a podium announcing his candidacy for president. To people like me, he may as well have been Malcolm X.
He told us we’d been had; that the system was rigged to favor millionaires and billionaires; that the same people who screwed us over were still working to screw us over.
And that message resonated within us because we knew that we’d been screwed over. We knew that our healthcare system was geared towards profit and not towards care. We knew that the shuttered factories weren’t coming back. We knew that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer and that the middle didn’t really exist anymore. We knew that the American dream was a broken promise written into political speeches to pay lip service to pre-selected voters in gerrymandered districts.
For us, the resounding lesson imparted by the Great Recession was this:
Good things happen to bad people.
That’s why it hurt so many of my friends and family when Bernie Sanders lost. All of the arguments about breaking the glass ceiling couldn’t penetrate the stronger desire for a fair and just economic system. The symbolic weight of Hillary Clinton’s feminist victory didn’t counteract the gut feeling that she was not going to fight for us. And when my sisters and parents and friends saw the leaked e-mails from the DNC, it didn’t matter that they were just the typical office gossip of political operatives. What mattered was that it confirmed something else that we knew all along: that our passions were easily dismissed by the political elite if they didn’t conform to the presumed outcome. In other words, they were playing favorites.
“They really screwed him over,” I remember my step-father telling me. “It’s all rigged.”
Which brings us to Donald Trump, who entered politics in a vacuum of cynicism and focus-grouped, multi-million-dollar messaging. It didn’t matter how slick the ad or how many celebrities endorsed Hillary Clinton, it only reaffirmed her status as the anointed leader of the structure that had let us down. And that put people like my mother in a difficult situation. She had entered politics for the first time in her life based on the glimmer of fairness that Bernie Sanders offered. So when the general election came, she found herself in the middle of a contest between a status quo that never represented her and an insurgent demagoguery that genuinely frightens her. She’s never said it out loud, but I suspect she might regret ever having registered in the first place.
I have family members who voted for Donald Trump, and believe in him. They think that America is threatened by enemies foreign and domestic. They think that he will bring jobs back and make America great again. They think Crooked Hillary should rot in jail.
But I know far more people who, when faced with this decision, either voted for Donald Trump because they felt so disillusioned by Hillary Clinton and everything that the entire government stood for; or they chose not to vote at all. And maybe both of those choices seem irrational. But then again, the whole fucking election was irrational.
I voted for Clinton. I believed, and still believe, that the election of the United States’ first female president would have been transformative, in the same way that the election of Barack Obama meant a generation of young black men and women could now look to the White House and see one of their own. I believe she would have been a good president. But I never believed that Clinton’s election would have brought about the type of change we needed. She wouldn’t push for free public universities, universal healthcare or massive infrastructure spending. I think a lot of people felt that same way. And when you pair that with Donald Trump’s relentless scorched earth campaign; and the misogyny, racism, race-baiting, hatred, violence and enmity of his rhetoric (to say nothing of Russian intervention and an electoral college designed to protect slave owners which has twice in my lifetime denied the presidency to the candidate who received the most votes), you end up where we are — with the dreams and hopes of President Obama’s democratic coalition dashed amidst the cynical Hell-scape in which Donald Trump has convinced us that we live.
Donald Trump himself has said that the American dream is dead. He has promised to bring it back. And many of my friends and family have bet it all on his ability to come through on that promise. Unfortunately, they are counting on him to bring back something that may never have existed. Or at least, something that is not reflective of what we think it means. It was the historian James Truslow Adams who coined the term in 1931. Describing the dream, he wrote that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” He wrote these words at the height of the Great Depression. Perhaps his words were meant to dissuade the rise of communism by convincing people that self-determination and perseverance — as opposed to collective action and wealth redistribution — will rescue society from economic chaos. But most people have taken it to echo what other founding principles have suggested: that all men are created equal; that we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that we can rise from our social class, escape the circumstances of our birth.
But as I watched my college go bankrupt as a result of internal fraud and national economic crisis; as I listened to my father tell me on the phone, week after week, each time more resigned and exhausted than the last, that he couldn’t find a job; as I’ve watched my sisters juggle multiple work schedules to pay for their children’s pre-school education; as I’ve seen my mother put in more and more time for less and less reward; and as I racked up debt and worked any job I could get and laid awake panicking about paying my rent as I struggled to get my degree, I have been constantly reminded that the greatest force suppressing the American poor and working classes is the reinforced belief that it is all our fault. As John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
For a moment, my friends and family broke through the veil when we voted for Bernie Sanders. We realized that our economic plight was created by forces out of our own control. But once that opportunity faded behind the greater forces of political machinery, millions of people were once again pulled back behind the veil. Some returned to the inactive, non-voting, disengaged state that roughly a third of the country perpetually lives in. Others cast a reluctant vote for a man they hate in opposition to a woman they did not trust.
But a third group cast their votes with intent and hope. This is the group that fell back into the trap of the American dream. Another historian, H.W. Brands, wrote that before the gold rush, the American dream was the idea of a gradual accumulation of wealth, status and comfort over a lifetime, or generations. But after those first nuggets of gold were found at Sutter’s Mill, “The new dream was a dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck.” Looking at President Trump, one realizes that when his supporters look at him, they see their ideal selves, the full actualization of the modern, capitalist, American dream. He is the gilded, brazen barbiturate of the working class.
That distortion of the American dream allowed for a distortion of the rest of the ideals wrapped up in that dream. Even when Donald Trump convinced his supporters that their economic failings were not their own fault, he pointed the finger away from the rich and the powerful, and he did what all tin-pot despots do: he directed all of our anger at the marginalized and the poor. The immigrants, the minorities, the other — that’s who was taking our jobs. Not oil barons and tycoons. The biggest obstacle to obtaining the bloated, gold-plated, super-model-dating American dream, according to Trump, was, is, and will always be, poor people.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this:
Don’t abandon my community.
Donald Trump is not new. Since the plantation days, the ruling elites in this country have always played working-class and poor white folks like mine against working-class and poor people of color to maintain an economic system that they profit from. Yes, my folks say some redneck shit sometimes. And yes, I still do, too. And maybe — if you ignore the fact that corporate elites exploited Trump’s insane campaign rhetoric to generate ratings — you could say we’re the ones who brought you Donald Trump. But we’re also the people of John Steinbeck, and Upton Sinclair, and Huey Long — and yes, Bernie Sanders. We’re a pissed off working-class, the bread and butter of revolutions worldwide. And that is something that I will always be proud of.