In January of this year, Mark Halperin of Time magazine said on the Charlie Rose show that "the 2012 presidential election could come down to a referendum on the American Dream, what it means and how people achieve it."
Unfortunately, to date the referendum has been heavy on sound bites and light on substance.
We've had superficial debates over who "built this," gotcha moments about the 1 percent, the 99 percent and the 47 percent and, most recently, a misguided conversation about Big Bird.
Each of these flash points could have led to a real debate about what each party would like to do to create more opportunities for Americans to pursue their dreams. But instead of leading to principled policy discussion they instead turned into ways to rack up political points.
Last Monday, we released results from our national survey of 2,000 Americans as part of our project The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation About the American Dream, done in conjunction with Public Agenda.
This research offers a glimpse into what Americans think of the American Dream and what it takes to achieve it. And it offers a jumping off point for a more nuanced conversation about what it takes for Americans to get ahead and the role our government and its political leaders can play to help make more of these dreams a reality.
Our research shows that on one hand, Americans do broadly agree on the essential ingredients for achieving the dream. Hard work, strong families and a good education are each seen as essential by more than 75% of Americans (hard work topped the list at almost 90%). These three consensus items raise an important question about whether we are doing enough to ensure that the foundations of character, family and education are being laid in every home, town and city across America.
On the other hand, there were significant political divisions as to what else was essential for achieving the dream after "the big three." We saw percentage swings between self-identified members of the two parties of over 30 points for factors such as basic healthcare or a strong free enterprise system. By asking candidates what they believe is most essential and why, Americans could gain greater insight into a candidates legislative priorities, if elected.
And perhaps most germane to this election, Americans are split right down the middle when asked if the American Dream is "mainly something that people do for themselves" or if "communities and government should take steps so every child has a fair chance achieve the dream."
Two days after our release, the political season moved towards its home stretch with the first of three presidential debates last Wednesday.
Instead of starting a national conversation about the American Dream, we got one on Big Bird.
Ironically, while Americans believe this election will have a profound impact on people's ability to achieve the American Dream by a margin of two to one, it was not mentioned once during this debate.
Beyond not mentioning the term, what was more concerning was that there was little substantive discussion of what either candidate believes is necessary for more Americans to get ahead.
There was no mention of how children can overcome poverty, how families can stay on their feet in an era of stagnant wages and decreased benefits, or how our elders can live securely in their golden years with little to no nest eggs. Nor was there any mention of immigrants, veterans, the health of our cities, or a myriad of other topics relevant to our times and central to a discussion of the American Dream.
If this election were truly framed as a referendum on the American Dream, then Mitt Romney's comment on de-funding PBS would have not just sent twitter a blaze with Big Bird jokes and filled the airwaves with Jimmy Kimmel parodies and opportunistic campaign ads, but could have led a serious conversation on the role Sesame Street has played in helping low-income children be more prepared for kindergarten. (In fact at least five independent studies have confirmed Sesame Street has improved school readiness, test scores, literacy skills and social behavior among viewers -- most demonstrably among low-income children.)
In an event to release our research, a panel that included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream? and moderated by Juan Williams of Fox News provided the kind of serious discussion we need our leaders to have and our citizens to participate in.
"We do need a more nuanced conversation, and we need to get away from this sense that is being created in the political world right now that it's either all being a Horatio Alger story or it's all having government support to help you," said Sawhill during the panel discussion. "It's not either/or, it's both."
The American Dream is powerful in many ways and for many reasons, as more than one person told us in focus groups conducted as part of our project, "without the American Dream, there is no America."
But perhaps its greatest purpose is to help provide focus -- both for individuals who envision something better for themselves, and for our leaders who must see through their macroeconomics and down to the real people inside the numbers.
"There's a tendency to talk about the American economy and its performance in terms of GDP," said Hedrick Smith during the panel. "When you're talking about the American Dream, what's useful, even though it's amorphous to some people, [is focusing] attention on what we're delivering to the individual."
Politics is all about making choices. And before we make our choice in the ballot box, it would be helpful if we better understood how our candidates make theirs.
For example, we asked Americans to tell us which of two 15-year-old children would be more likely to achieve the American Dream: One had a strong family but lacked ambition while the other had a strong work ethic but had an abusive family.
Seventy percent of Americans believe that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream.
We like to think that in this country -- no matter how bad things are -- with hard work we can overcome anything. But is this wonderful ideal potentially a limiting belief? We often hear impressive stories of people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families. We hold them up as shining examples of what makes America great.
At the same time, we know that the numbers tell us that the most people don't escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families and that while this social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, it is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility.
Yet this discussion goes missing in an election cycle that will see more than a billion dollars spent trying to get our attention.
Beginning tonight, during the vice presidential debate, wouldn't it be nice to hear more from Vice President Biden on what it takes for a boy from Scranton to rise to national prominence? Wouldn't it be insightful to hear what Paul Ryan would do for other children being raised by a single parent like he was?
And next week, how refreshing would it be if we heard President Obama and Mitt Romney offer less abstract macroeconomic philosophy and more concrete kitchen table solutions?
We call our project The Invisible Dream not because the American Dream is disappearing but because we can't see what it's made of.
Until we can have a deeper and more nuanced conversation about what makes the American Dream not just possible but probable, we will continue to hear mentions of things like Big Bird as political punch lines instead of the teachable moments they could be.