Are American Ideals a Pipe Dream?

The state of opportunity, politics, and citizen engagement in the US today.

Stephen Henderson talks with Marc Kruman, Director of the Center for the Study of Citizenship and Professor of History at Wayne State University, and Louise Jezierski, Associate Professor of Social Relations and Policy and Comparative Culture and Politics at Michigan State University’s, James Madison College, about the state of America today.  The conversation, which included callers, focused on opportunity, political participation, and American ideals. 

  • Optimism and anxiety:  Jezierski says that Americans are optimistic about their opportunities, but that they have increasing anxiety in recent decades because of debt, loss of pensions, and retirement.  A caller says that she thinks the types of opportunity that present themselves change over time and expresses both optimism and frustration with the history of racism and mobility in the US. 
  • Political participation and citizen engagement: Some callers say Americans need to make sure that we vote and become involved in the political process.  One says he believes some Americans do not know how to do this, and that people must both understand and participate in government.  Kruman and Jezierski agree that citizen engagement in local government and community organizations is key.
  • Role of race:  Kruman says that the founding fathers would likely be surprised at the degree of racial equality in the US today and that they never got far enough to conceptualize it.  He says that the black vote in the south since 1965 has changed the region and that black elected officials were unthinkable before.  Jezierski says that even though African Americans suffered income and wealth losses in the recession, they express more optimism about the US and their opportunity than other Americans.  She believes that this difference is because of visible social and political progress, such as Barack Obama’s presidency. 
  • Opportunity in Detroit:  Jezierski says that Detroit was the “crucible” of upward mobility for the black middle class, and that structural elements such as the auto industry and growing local government gave people jobs and opportunity in the Detroit region.  She says that these are shrinking, especially since Detroit’s bankruptcy.  However, she says there are new opportunities for the black middle class in health care, engineering, and higher education. 
  • Rights and government:  One caller says that he believes America would be more successful and open to more opportunity with reduced government and economic regulations.  Jezierski says that this perspective is part of a long-standing debate about the ideal size of government in this country.  She says that historically, social movements have demanded the expansion of government from below.  She says both political rights, such as voting, and social rights, like life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, have been expanded and protected by expanding government. 
  • Segregated experiences:  A caller voices concern that America’s progress is being undermined “under the surface” by things such as changes to the Voting Rights Act and the erosion of worker’s rights.  Kruman says that he does not think these changes are under the surface but are very public debates.  He says that there are clear partisan connections involved in the debate about voter ID laws, and urges people to become involved in the political process.  Jezierski says that issues like voter ID laws are invisible to some segments of the US population because we live in such a segregated world.  She says that people’s perceptions of how these changes affect disenfranchised communities are different because “we aren’t living each other’s realities”.
  • Ideal America: Stephen asks Kruman and Jezierski about their America.  Jezierski says America has promise, and we just have to keep fighting for it.  Kruman says that it is a matter of fighting for our ideals of equality and freedom and that we have a responsibility to fulfill these ideals. 

Click the audio link above to hear the full conversation.  


To read “Detroit Today” host Stephen Henderson’s essay on his ideal America, click here.