How a storied phrase became a partisan battleground

Juan Ciscomani, a Republican who washed cars to help his Mexican immigrant father pay the bills and is now running for Congress in Arizona, has relied on a simple three-word phrase throughout his campaign: “the dream American”.

For him, the American Dream, a nearly 100-year-old idea loaded with meaning and memory, has become not so much something to aspire to but to defend against attack.

President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are, he says in an ad, “destroying the american dream” with “a border crisis, rising inflation and schools that don’t teach the good things about America.”

For decades, politicians have used the phrase “the American Dream” to describe a promise of economic opportunity and upward mobility, of prosperity through hard work. It was such a powerful promise that it attracted immigrants from all over the world, who fulfilled it generation after generation. Political figures in both parties used the phrase to promote both their own policies and their own biographies.

Now, a new crop of Republican candidates and elected officials are using the phrase differently, invoking the same promise but arguing in speeches, ads and mailers that the American dream is dying or in danger, threatened by what they see as a rampant crime , uncontrolled illegal immigration, heavy government regulations and liberal social policies. Many of these Republicans are people of color, including immigrants and children of immigrants, for whom the phrase first popularized in 1931 resonates deeply.

For politicians of old, “the American dream” was an extremely optimistic rhetorical device, even as it often obscured the economic and racial barriers that made it impossible for many to achieve. For Republican candidates who embrace it today, the phrase has taken on an ominous quality. and a more pessimistic tone, echoing the leader of the party, former President Donald J. Trump, who said in 2015 that “the American dream is dead.” Just as many Trump supporters have tried to turn the American flag into a right-wing emblem, these Republicans have also sought to claim the phrase as their own, repurposing it as a spin-off of the slogan Make America Great Again .

Politicians have long warned that the American Dream was slipping away, a note struck from time to time by former President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats. What has changed is that some Republicans are now presenting the situation more harshly, using the rhetoric of the endangered dream as a pervasive line of attack, arguing that Democrats have turned patriotism itself into something controversial.

“Both parties used to celebrate the fact that America is an exceptional country; now you have only one party celebrating that fact,” said Jason Miyares, a Republican and the son of Cuban immigrants. The American dream was part of his successful campaign to become Virginia’s first Latino attorney general.

In Texas, Representative Mayra Flores, a Mexican immigrant who became the state’s first Latina Republican in Congress, posted an ad who declared, “Democrats are destroying the American dream.” Antonio Swad, an Italian-Lebanese immigrant running for a House seat in suburban Dallas, said in an ad that he washed dishes at age 15 before opening two restaurants, telling voters that the American dream it does not “come from a government document.”

Television ads for more than a dozen Republican candidates in statewide House and Senate campaigns, more than half of whom are people of color, quote the phrase, according to AdImpact, the ad tracking. Several other House hopefuls, many of them Latino, frequently quote the words in social media posts, digital ads, campaign literature and speeches.

“In Congress, I will fight to defend the American dream,” Yesli Vega, a former police officer who is the daughter of refugees from El Salvador’s civil war and is running for a House seat in Virginia, said on Twitter.

“The American Dream” was a prominent issue in two Republican Republican campaigns in Virginia last year: the races of Winsome Earle-Sears, a Jamaican-born Navy veteran who is now the first black woman to serve as lieutenant governor of the state, and Mr. Miyares, the Attorney General.

“On the campaign trail, I used to say, if your family came to this country looking for hope, there’s a good chance your family is a lot like my family, and it would be the greatest honor of my life to be your attorney general.” said Mr. Miyares.

Republicans relying on the phrase show the extent to which the party is diversifying its ranks and recruiting candidates with powerful back stories. But historians and other scholars warn against it some Republicans are misrepresenting a defining American idea and turning it into an exclusionary political message.

“The Republican Party is using it as a dog whistle,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “They say here is the potential of what you can have, if we can exclude others from ‘stealing it’ from you.”

Republicans dispute that their references to the “American Dream” promote exclusion and say they are using the phrase the same way politicians have used it for decades: to signal hope and opportunity. “I think the left is much more pessimistic than the Republicans about the American dream,” said Representative Yvette Herrell, R-New Mexico. which is Cherokee and the third Native American woman never elected to Congress.

But this latest iteration of the dream has become a rhetorical appeal for Republican policy positions.

Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican state legislator from Colorado in a heated race for the House, adopts the American Dream as the theme of her personal story. Ms. Kirkmeyer grew up on a dairy farm, the sixth of seven children in a family that was often troubled. He paid his way through college by raising and selling a herd of eight dairy cows, yearlings and calves.

The American dream, Ms Kirkmeyer said, was not just about economic opportunity but freedom, connecting the words to Republican opposition to Covid-related mask mandates. “I don’t see mandates as part of the American dream,” he said. “People felt it was an infringement on their personal rights and dreams.”

The first printed mention of the words “American Dream” appears to have been in a 1930 ad for a $13.50 bed spring from an American mattress company.

Historians and economists, however, credit writer James Truslow Adams with popularizing the phrase in his bestseller published a year later in 1931, “The Epic of America.” His definition of the Depression era was a “dream of a land in which life should be better, richer, and fuller for all.” For Mr. Adams, was part of a liberal vision in which the government was seen as a force to fight big business. His symbol of the American dream at the time was the Library of Congress.

For later generations, Mr. Adams’ phrase came to be defined by an image — a house with a white picket fence — as presidents, businesses and popular culture pushed home ownership. But with the possibilities of owning a home diminishing after the economic crisis of 2008, Democrats and Republicans again tried to redefine it. Now, much of the phrase’s progressive history has been lost as Republicans argue that big government is the enemy.

“That’s been the real change,” said Sarah Churchwell, the author of a 2018 book, Behold, America: The Intertwining Story of ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream.’

The roots of this more conservative view of the American Dream go back to Ronald Reagan, who often invoked the phrase and also used it in his appeals to Latino voters, extolling family, religion and opposition to government handouts . It was a strategy later followed by George W. Bush.

“He married conservative values ​​with economic opportunity: ‘We recognize your contribution to America and we’ll give you a chance to get ahead if you’re willing to do the work,'” said Lionel Sosa, a retired media consultant in San Anthony who is a republican and who created ads for mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush.

Republicans still use the American Dream the way Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush, emphasizing a strong work ethic, Christian values ​​and entrepreneurship. But many Hispanic Republicans are now adding a tougher edge, stressing that they came to the country legally, decrying “open borders” and calling for the completion of the US-Mexico border wall.

“The whole time we worked on it, we didn’t say anything that had to do with building a wall,” Sosa said of past messages aimed at Hispanic Republicans. “There was no message that you have to be here legally or that if you’re not here legally, we don’t want you here.”

The politicization of the phrase comes as studies shows that the American public has become more pessimistic about the possibility of achieving the American dream. Historians say that in recent years, Republicans have been using the phrase far more often than Democrats in ads and speeches. While more than a dozen Republican candidates across the country are quoting the phrase in their TV ads this midterm season, only four Democrats have, according to AdImpact.

One of the Democratic candidates who has drawn on the issue in their ads is Shri Thanedar, an Indian-American state legislator in Michigan and a Democratic candidate for a House seat. “We’ve ceded that ground to Republicans and other corporate politicians,” Thanedar said, referring to the reluctance of some Democrats to emphasize the phrase.

Gabe Vasquez, a Democrat facing Ms. Herrell in New Mexico in the fall, has also embraced the phrase. He tells supporters that his late grandfather — Javier Bañuelos, who taught himself how to fix broken TVs using an old manual and eventually opened his own repair shop — made it possible for him to run for Congress. The American dream is not about buying a house, but about making sure the economic ladder “is there for everybody and everybody can climb with you,” he said.

However, even Democrats find themselves talking about the dream as pessimistically as Republicans. Just as Republicans blame Democrats for destroying the American Dream, Democrats believe Republicans are to blame. They say Republicans are making it harder to get by attacking the social safety net and blocking efforts to raise the minimum wage, and that they have co-opted symbols of patriotism, including words like patriot, and turned them into partisan weapons.

“This American dream,” Mr. Vasquez said, “is becoming a hallucination.”

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