Can Politicians Still Pursue the American Dream?

In the age of Twitter, fake news and intensely polarized politics, candidates are putting more effort than ever into public relations. A few ill-spoken words can trend within the hour and approval ratings fluctuate rapidly in anticipation of the high-stakes 2020 presidential race. Criticism is inevitable, some warranted and some not, yet one particular angle from the media is irregular and problematic. As the American dream becomes farther from constituents’ reach, both the public and the media struggle to watch politicians attain that dream, even when done so through honest means.

Politico recently published an article titled “‘Middle Class Joe’ rakes in millions,” which contrasts Joe Biden’s recent financial success with his appeal among the middle class. Biden has secured a book deal and bought a “$2.7 million vacation home,” clearly establishing the former Vice President as far from middle class. The problematic thing about Politico’s article and the surrounding commentary is the characterization of his socioeconomic status as inappropriate. Should Biden have labeled himself a member of the middle class after a childhood of trust funds and a career fueled by legacy, this characterization would hold water. Examining Biden’s life story, it is clear that his relatability as “Middle Class Joe” pulls from honest experiences, and that his wealth is a recent development achieved through political work.

Otterbein identified that Biden’s accumulation of wealth “could give his Democratic and GOP opponents an opening to attack him as disingenuous,” and quotes other critics who agree. Adam Green, from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that “Joe Biden is the opposite of an outsider and the opposite of someone who will challenge big corporate and moneyed elites.” From attempts to “ensure that his grandchildren would be provided for”, as his spokesperson commented, Biden has been framed as a phoney and as a conspirator with elites.

However, it appears that his claim to middle class relatability is legitimate, as his spokesperson  mentioned that Biden did not pursue financial opportunities outside his job until he was out of office. Biden’s affluence comes from book deals and speaking engagements, opportunities which are hardly unusual for a person in his position. It is clear that Biden’s wealth is recent, hard earned and seemingly good-intentioned, yet the media claims that politicians like Biden who achieve the American Dream are disingenuous.

Shock upon realizing politicians receive wages has cropped up elsewhere – Rep. Ocasio-Cortez faced similar criticism when she was photographed and critiqued by The Examiner’s Eddie Scarry. Scarry’s tweet remarked at the expensive look of Cortez’s coat, claiming that the “jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

Both of these politicians come from legitimate middle class backgrounds. Biden grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, raised by his mother and father, who was a used-car salesman. According to CNN, Ocasio-Cortez is “the daughter of working class Puerto Rican parents” who served as a bartender before her time in office. While their backgrounds are certainly not comparable, they both draw on their struggles as part of their public image. What unites them is their ability to make claims and relatable statements that are authentic, whether that’s appealing to middle class families as Biden has or encouraging young women from the Bronx to run for public office as Ocasio-Cortez has. After experiencing significant life changes, media has decreed that politicians who relate to their middle class pasts are somehow dishonest.

Politicians love to promise the American Dream, but are challenged by the public and the media for following that path themselves. The American Dream, however legitimate it may be, is a significant part of American identity. Any candidate’s platform that guarantees more jobs, economic growth, healthcare or job training programs stems from the idea of working for a better life. All of these topics are hot button issues for candidate platforms, and have predictably begun to resurface as politicians launch their plans and promises to remedy the weakening American Dream. Simultaneously, the media recognizes the decaying of the dream’s feasibility, with publications asking questions like The Atlantic’s “American Dream in Decline?”

When politicians achieve this dream through their transition into office, it detracts from their legitimacy among constituents who, presumably, believe in the American Dream. The public desire for political icons to be just like everyone else is so intense that a Politician’s success becomes a sign of distrust rather than a beacon of hope.

This inconsistency between supporting the American dream and criticizing politicians for following it is understandable. The fear of abusive people in power has clouded media’s perception of a politician fulfilling the American Dream. The media must clear its lens when assessing the economic success of politicians.

It is still possible for politicians to move upwards in legitimate, reasonable ways and continue to represent classes other than their own through personal experience and commitment to constituents. Ocasio-Cortez is a stunning example of this: inspired by Justice Sotomayor, she wore hoop earrings to her swearing in, tweeting “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”  Here, Ocasio-Cortez uses her lived experience to inspire and represent her constituents, people with whom she still shares these experiences with.

While the national concept of the American Dream fluctuates as upward mobility declines, media must decide whether to preserve its sentiment or discard its promise, especially when it comes to the people who represent the public’s fight to reach that goal.

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