Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How the American Dream got downsized

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
December 9, 2013 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Director Alexander Payne, from left, and actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte speak at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Director Alexander Payne, from left, and actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte speak at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: A new film presents stark portrait of struggling Americans
  • "Nebraska" vividly shows deterioration in middle-class America
  • Zelizer says American politicians of both parties failing their down-and-out constituents
  • Republicans seeking to unravel safety net, while Obama White House has done little, he says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- As you celebrate the holiday season, make time to see Alexander Payne's brilliant new film, "Nebraska." The movie is a riveting story, filmed in black and white, about an elderly man named Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) who takes a road trip with his youngest son, David (played by Will Forte).

The two of them drive from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody, an alcoholic who has lived a hard life, is convinced that he has won a million dollars based on a letter from a company that sells magazine subscriptions.

David tries to explain to his gruff father that the letter is simply a ploy to convince him to purchase subscriptions. The father is determined, and desperate, to claim the prize. With a kind heart, David ends up taking his dad on the trip to play out his dream.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Throughout the film, viewers see a landscape that is visually beautiful and economically devastating. The two travel through towns that are aging and fading, where almost every character is struggling to make ends meet.

Indeed, the fact that Woody is depending on this kind of letter to find fortune is in itself a devastating statement about what has become of the American dream.

David, a struggling salesman in the audio and electronics business, at one point asks what his father would actually do with a million dollars. It turns out that all Woody really wants is a new truck and an air compressor. That's the limit of his aspirations. He can't even dream of anything more or of a better way to obtain it.

Inside Man: Nebraska Drought

The movie is a powerful statement about the economic challenges that face so many Americans who live in, or on the verge of, poverty. One of the greatest tragedies of the current political era is that neither party has been doing much to make things better.

Like Woody, many Americans cling on for their economic lives, daring to dream based on the flimsiest of opportunities. While the American dream once revolved around making your way up through a union job, selling products to consumers or starting a small business, today for many Americans that dream has come down to hoping to win sweepstakes, contests that are doomed to disappoint almost everyone.

In this context, it's remarkable that in recent years, many Republicans have actually threatened to make things more difficult in these communities. Besides the fact that the national GOP has not supported any kind of substantive policies to invest in certain regions to kick start economic growth, congressional Republicans have launched an all-out assault on the social safety net.

The House GOP, for example, has pushed for a reduction in food stamps, one of the most important benefits upon which millions of Americans have depended since the 1960s.

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has called for a conservative War on Poverty that relies on private markets, voluntarism and vouchers to help the poor while he simultaneously promotes stringent budget cuts in nondefense spending that would weaken government support systems such as food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Republicans have pushed for major reductions in programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Many Republican governors are continuing to reject the expanded Medicaid funding in the Affordable Care Act, which would be hugely beneficial to the poor and working poor.

There are many more Democrats who are clearly interested in using government to tackle some of the conditions with which the characters in "Nebraska" have to cope, though the actual programs they seek to put into place remain unclear (outside of the ACA, which is hugely significant).

President Barack Obama delivered a speech last week on economic inequality, calling on politicians to do more to address the issue, which he characterized as the "defining challenge of our time."

The president called on Congress to pass legislation strengthening unions, raising the minimum wage, reducing the gender pay gap and making college more affordable. But until now, there has been little movement during by the Obama White House to deal with these kinds of structural economic problems. Obama has also faced fierce opposition whenever he raises these issues.

Many Democrats assume that tackling poverty is politically impossible today, so they invest more energy in programs that will win them votes in prosperous suburban communities.

The nation can't afford to continue along this path.

Fifty years ago next year, President Lyndon Johnson and the 88th Congress launched a War on Poverty that committed government funding and created an agency to help impoverished Americans become self-sufficient and restore their communities. For over a decade, the program had many beneficial effects and played a role in diminishing the number of people living under the worst economic conditions.

A recent paper from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed how government supports created since the New Deal lift millions of Americans out of poverty. In 2011, the paper found, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit rescued 9.4 million people from the grasp of poverty.

To be sure, the War on Poverty suffered from many shortcomings. The funding for the programs was always meager compared with the inflated promises that came from elected officials.

Some of the programs created huge friction among Democrats as local politicians didn't like what community activists did with federal money that was out of their control. Conservatives have also railed against the unintended consequences of the programs, claiming they made recipients dependent on government.

Regardless of the criticism, this was a period when the federal government tried to do something. Importantly, it was not just liberals who were behind these programs, but also conservatives such as Southern Democrat Phil Landrum of Georgia, who sponsored the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in the House.

The time has come to focus our attention on the issue of systematic poverty once again, to make sure that we move the nation on a path toward a better Christmas in Nebraska.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT