American Dream Dies! Again! Or Maybe Not


The people are losing faith in … some institutions! And not others!

When writing an appropriately gloomy tale about the imminent death of the American dream, it helps if you stir together a heterogeneous helping of downbeat, but completely unrelated crap. Then put the worst spin on every detail, while overlooking any clearly contradictory evidence that the grim details might be self-inflicted and that, for most people, the sun just might come up tomorrow. And so it is with an apocalypse-now piece by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton over at the National Journal, insisting that "Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great."

The article sets the tone with the tale of Johnny Whitmire of Muncie, Indiana (the slice-of-America in which our story is set), now living in a trailer through no fault of his own, but still trimming the weeds on his repossessed … Wait. What's that?

Whitmire tells a familiar story of how public and private institutions derailed an American's dream: In 2000, he bought the $40,000 house with no money down and a $620 monthly mortgage. He made every payment. Then, in the fall of 2010, his partially disabled wife lost her state job. "Governor [Mitch] Daniels slashed the budget, and they looked for any excuse to squeeze people out," Whitmire says. "We got lost in that shuffle—cut adrift." The Whitmires couldn't make their payments anymore.

Never mind that the phrase "no money down" still brings the same chill to my heart as it did when I discovered the details of my then-girlfriend's (now-wife's) brand-new, carny-barker-quality mortgage. A monthly payment of $620 over ten years should have put Mr. Whitmire $74,400 to the good toward paying off that $40,000 dream house. Even allowing for interest, how far could he have been from walking away with the title? Unless there's something missing from the story, it seems unlikely that the bank wouldn't discuss something a little more productive than the trial loan modification that ultimately fell through. Some financial details seem to be missing from this story.

And while losing a job sucks — I've been there and I feel sympathy for anybody undergoing that particular tour through personal hell — Indiana has been shedding state employees since about 1992. Mitch Daniels has played a role in that, but whether that's a bad thing or a good thing depends on whether you were one of the folks on the public payroll, or one of the taxpayers thankful that the Hoosier state is one of the few components of the union not facing a short-term fiscal disaster.

But none of this addresses the core argument of this wrist-cutter of a journalistic endeavor: Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great. "Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing," say Fournier and Quinton. To prove their point, they emphasize religion, education and government, and point to … a booming, popular church and thriving schools.

But the booming church is a new-style church:

Union Chapel's pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you'd expect from an M.B.A. ("I'm in the word business") or a sociologist ("We're going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world"). He keeps his sermons simple because "you can't assume everybody knows the Lord's Prayer," and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life's challenges. 

The new church offers a coffee shop, a gymnasium and a bookstore and actually attracts parishioners. By contrast, a more-traditional Methodist church is aging and dying.

And the thriving schools are charter schools:

"Every year," Whitehead says of Jordan, "the light got dimmer and dimmer, and finally he hated school." His joy of learning didn't return until she enrolled him in the sixth grade at Hoosier Academy, one of many charter schools that have sprung up across Indiana to provide an alternative. …

At Hoosier, four days a week, the queue of small sedans, SUVs, and trucks waiting to drop off students forms a wide circle around the parking lot. The academy leases space in the unused wing of a Catholic school on the city's south side. Under its "blended" model, children go to their classrooms two days a week for face-to-face instruction. Three days a week, they work at home with a parent or other adult while connected electronically to the high-tech school. Teachers and coaches meet at least once a month to review each child's progress. "Everybody is on the same page all the time," Whitehead says.

Homeschooling, too, is taking off. It's  the old-style public schools that are losing students and support.

In both cases, Muncie residents aren't turning away from churches and schools, they're substituting newer models that suit their needs for older models that don't. The authors prefer the older models over the new, but time doesn't stand still, and institutions have to adapt and improve or be replaced. 

Except, of course, in the case of government. Nobody has yet developed an easy way for individuals to choose a competitor to a failing government without physically moving locations. And Muncie sounds like it has a doozy:

The first City Council meeting in 2008 is the stuff of legend. Republican Sharon McShurley had just become Muncie's first female mayor. (Her margin of victory: 13 votes.) Coming into the session, it was all-out partisan war. Democrats were contesting the election in court. Republicans accused Democratic council member Monte Murphy of voter fraud after rounding up a half dozen witnesses who said that Murphy pressured them to vote Democratic on the absentee ballots he collected. The Democratic-controlled council had vowed to gridlock city government if that's what it took to consign McShurley to a single term.

But … that's government. After decades of epic fail, people can probably be excused for losing faith in an institution from which it's so difficult to escape and replace with something better. Federal government has shouldered the brunt of the anger, but state and local governments are also losing fans.

Note that people are flocking to the new church and to charter schools and homeschooling. So new institutions are gaining the trust of the people in the article and replacing the old ones which, we're told, "made the country great." And isn't it the ability to choose what's right for you and not being bound to hoary old museum pieces that has actually made this country relatively habitable?

As for those other institutions losing public faith … all the ones in the dumper of public confidence are those with close ties to the state. Banks, unions, big corporations— all are enablers of or enabled by friends in politically powerful places, and all rank just above Congress at the bottom of the heap. Public schools somehow cling to the middle. Small businesses actually rank only second to the military, according to Gallup, with churches not far behind.

Maybe America is on the verge of some terrible moment. But if and when it comes, it will be the result of our own bad choices and because of coercive institutions of which we can't rid ourselves, not because we occasionally toss out the old and embrace the new.