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Don't settle for less than the American Dream

It’s clear by now that the latest slaughter in an American school isn’t going to change anything – that is, if anyone had really imagined Congress would respond to the shooting deaths of three children and three adults in a Nashville Christian school. Forget it: not when one political party is so manipulated by the gun lobby that it can ignore deep and wide public support across America for tighter gun laws.

In fact, as we were saying the other day, Americans’ expectations have dropped to the point that we are experiencing what we ought to call the Age of Diminished Expectations.

We have no realistic expectation, for example, that government will do anything to make us safer from the 434 million guns in America.

Young people don’t expect anymore to do better financially than their parents did.

We can’t expect a more aggressive fight to reverse devastating climate change, because so far, we’ve advanced so little…

Nor do we expect any response to assaults on the rights of many groups of Americans, including, especially, LGBTQ people.

And we surely don’t expect anymore, as we once did, that our political leaders will behave with fairness and decency, because they can get elected without it. Look at Donald Trump, and all his little imitators all over the country.

You could argue that it’s simply sensible to recognize the reality of our diminished circumstance as a nation at a time when the world has grown so complex. In business, that notion is common: A generation of leaders has embraced the value of celebrating even limited success, or, as Voltaire is supposed to have suggested, “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s a useful strategy in an era of technology that allows quick new iterations if something isn’t quite up to snuff. It’s like the sign on the desk of my wise old friend: It says, “When all else fails, lower your standards.” So what’s so bad about that?

Besides, psychologists suggest that we all might be more able to find peace of mind by sort of grading our expectations on a curve. As the social theorist Barry Schwartz argues, people who are “maximizers” – that is, they’re trying to get the most out of life – are often less happy than what he called “satisficers,” the people who are content with good-enough results. Schwartz wrote that learning to accept “good enough” makes people happier. He said, rather famously, “No matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions.” You know, drink the stuff that’s just good enough; you’ll be fine.

What is healthy for our unsettled psyches, though, isn’t necessarily good for our troubled nation. If too many citizens lose their ambition to reach for the sky, they will choose mediocre leaders, who will drag down the nation’s performance. I’d say we’ve already witnessed that.

And an America that gives up on solving big problems will produce a less secure world. Any coach who has tallied a winning season will tell you that a team cannot rise above mediocrity unless it believes it can. It’s true of a nation, too.

Right now, Americans are about to settle on the notion that we can’t move much beyond mediocrity. We don’t say it, but we act that way. What’s at risk in that mindset is nothing less than what’s often called the American Dream. That term emerged in the Great Depression, championed by a Pulitzer-winning historian named James Truslow Adams.

Adams wrote of “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” It’s important to note that Adams stressed that he wasn’t referring mainly to financial gain, but to what he called “a genuine individual search and striving for the abiding values of life… .” He wrote that the American Dream was for “the common man to rise to full stature” in “intellectual and cultural life.”

If that’s the American Dream, I’d say that there’s too much at stake for all of us to allow any of us to settle sadly into the belief that we can do no better in the future than we’re doing right now. We’ve got to keep working for that dream.

Make no mistake: We are at a crisis point in American politics, though we hardly recognize it because we’ve begun to embrace low expectations – and to tolerate the carnage in our political system.

Fighting back is still an option, though. You can push for stronger gun laws to protect kids in school… or stand up against hate based on ethnic origin, or race, or gender or sexual orientation… or you can demand political accountability, rather than a tolerance of lies.

So, sure, save the good wine, maybe – but don’t let this be the Age of Diminished Expectations. Don’t settle for anything less than the American Dream.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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