Is the American Dream a Long Con?

Is the American Dream a Long Con?

A conversation with Alissa Quart about her new book Bootstrapped, an examination of how the ideology of individualism helped create the conditions for inequality.


When Barbara Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, she envisioned that the nonprofit would publish “quality journalism about inequality.” Alissa Quart, who worked alongside Ehrenreich at the EHRP and now serves as its executive director, embodies this ethos in her own trenchant cultural criticism and reporting, picking apart American delusions from the ads marketed to teens (Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers) to the stability of a middle-class life (Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America).

In her latest book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream, a follow-up to Squeezed, Quart examines the American fascination with individualism and sketches out a cultural genealogy for it, going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—“avatars of individualism.” She supplements her narrative with profiles of parents struggling to afford camp and day care for their children as well as some members of the group Patriotic Millionaires, whose belief in such things as the wealth tax and the estate tax make them self-described class traitors. “While the individualism story tells us that hard work leads to limitless possibility, during the pandemic we learned what we already knew—that often the opposite was actually our lot: being stuck; laboring and receiving not enough in return; depending on others and endlessly being depended on,” she writes. Mutual aid effectively dismantles the notion that we exist independently of others. It is, Quart notes, “part of a countervailing tradition of collective action in America…that refute[s] the certainty of the singular and the siren song of selfishness.” Perhaps alongside Independence Day, we should make a practice of celebrating “Interdependence Day,” as Quart proposes in the book’s coda. She recently spoke with The Nation about the legacy of Ehrenreich, radical self-help, the rise of mutual aid during the pandemic, and the con of the “side hustle.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Rhoda Feng

Rhoda Feng: I want to begin by acknowledging the death of Barbara Ehrenreich, someone you knew for a long time and worked with at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. One of the things you mention in a Time appreciation of her and in the foreword to a reissued edition of her book Fear of Falling is that Ehrenreich had a gift for beaming an “ultraviolet light” at “the unjust underside, making these cruelties and indignities impossible to ignore.” Your nonfiction does something similar. Could you reflect on Ehrenreich’s influence on your work?

Alissa Quart: Before I met Barbara, like everyone else I’d read Nickel and Dimed, but her most influential book for me was Fear of Falling, which I read in my 20s. That book and Bright-Sided and her works of cultural criticism shaped my practice as a writer. One of the things that I learned from her is to trust the reader and to be, as a writer, in an almost collusive relationship with the reader. The point is not to talk over the reader or pander; it’s to be stringent, but also to amuse and entertain, even when you’re doing serious political writing. You can’t back away politically, and you can’t back away in terms of the complexity of your language or your ideas. That’s still really important. There’s also this place between reporting and academic writing that’s under-explored in this country. I went to grad school in literature and studied sociology and then dropped out, and I was always looking for those spaces between the academy and journalism. And Barbara was totally that. She was also in that space between activism and journalism, which is something that is often not only disregarded but treated with antipathy. Barbara was cochair of the Democratic Socialists of America, a feminist, even a body feminist—she wrote about midwives and witches. I learned a lot from that, too: that you can have activist thought in your reported work. There may be some neutral arenas that will criticize you for this, but it’s most important to take a principled stance.

RF: You wrote Squeezed from a sense of “personal distress” and told The Guardian in an interview that it became a kind of “self-help book for people who are struggling with [a financial insecurity] they don’t like to admit to.” It’s interesting to think about how self-help as a genre shares a kind of idiom with the myth of individualism. It’s a genre that many people associate with Dale Carnegie and others who were in the business of giving commercial advice about self-improvement and that typically placed a lot of emphasis on individual agency. Do you see any tension between writing a self-help book and seeking to live, as you write in Bootstrapped, in a state of interdependence?

AQ: I do see both of my books as radical self-help, where the helpful message is that it’s not a matter of self, or it’s not about the self. That’s one of the problems of self-help: You’re not freed from self-blame, and you’re supposed to continue actualizing on your own despite structural inequality. I wanted to shed light on that mythos of self-becoming and on structural inequality—the fact that [as of 2015[ 60 percent of wealth is inherited, the constant peddling of mindfulness in corporate settings, celebrities claiming to be self-made when they come from multimillionaire backgrounds, etc. You need to expose these lies to free yourself of the shame. And freeing yourself in this way is what I consider self-help. And it helps me personally. I’m not a traditional bootstrapping person, but I believe in hard work, just like Barbara did—she wrote 21 books and worked constantly. So there are alternative modes of success that have some of the same features as bootstrapping narratives. One is working and producing, and that’s not always bad, but it’s worth questioning why you’re doing so much and working all the time. Is it because you’ve been contaminated by this myth?

RF: The book’s preface begins with an excerpt from a poem by George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” which ends with the phrase, “We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous.” That opposition between “being numerous” and individualism, or living in, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the age of the first person singular,” goes to the heart of your book. It’s the distinction between participating in forms of mutual aid and tending to your own walled garden. I was wondering, given your background as a poet, if I could hear you say something about the relation between poetry and what you’ve elsewhere called “emotional reporting.”

AQ: Oppen was someone I was studying in graduate school. And, oh dear, I think I made somebody recite that poem at our wedding! I’m into the Objectivists—not just Oppen, but Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, sometimes William Carlos Williams. Also, I like them biographically. Oppen was a Marxist and a union organizer (meaning an anti-bootstrapper). He didn’t publish from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, and then he’s in late middle age and he publishes Of Being Numerous. The sense of working for the numerous and against the singular is interesting, and I was very influenced by that, as well as by documentary poetry practices (which Oppen practiced an early version of). Muriel Rukeyser reported poetry in mining communities in West Virginia. These are poets with a relationship to information that can be more imaginative than nonfiction writers’. I also think I learned from these poets not to just fall for easy phrases, even if you’re doing political writing or serious reporting. That’s why, in my poetry—most recently the book Thoughts and Prayers—I drew on my reporting on reproductive freedom. I had a notebook filled with notes from a few different abortion-related projects I worked on, like The Last Clinic. I also had a lot of emotional residue from that experience and wanted to put that in a poem.

RF: Do you think there are certain things that documentaries are better at doing than reporting?

AQ: I do think visual representations of pain and suffering can be more powerful, but I wonder if that’s changing because so much of culture now is visual, and there’s a profusion of TikTok videos where people are signaling their despair, and that proliferation might water down our understanding of the image of, say, a sad person. That would probably be interesting for someone to study! The reverse is also true: There’s an interiority that I think is much easier to access through writing.

RF: What was the most challenging part of writing the book?

AQ: The pandemic. I usually spend a lot of time with my sources or subjects, and because of the pandemic, most of this was happening virtually. That’s probably why I was leaning into literary and cultural criticism more in Bootstrapped than in my previous works; I normally do more immersive reporting, which I couldn’t really do during the pandemic. Also, the constant, highly changeable nature of our political world was a complicating factor—like, how much do you talk about Covid when you’re still in the middle of it? When you’re reporting on mutual aid, when do you stop the addenda, and what do you do when the interest in it lessens? But there, I do think that there are permanent recognitions that have been instated around dependence and interdependence because of the pandemic. You can wheel back eviction moratoria, you can reinstate the demanding reenrollment requirements for SNAP and other social programs, but you can’t necessarily take back our new understanding: that we really need each other.

RF: I was struck by your use of the term “moral injury” in the book. It’s a concept that’s been surfacing more these days and being popularized by other journalists and reporters. I’m thinking especially of Eyal Press’s Dirty Work, which claims that people who hold “low-status jobs of last resort,” like prison guards, slaughterhouse employees, and drone imagery analysts, often experience a type of moral injury. You write, in a footnote, that “people who have survived the pandemic economically intact experience a kind of ‘moral injury’ when so many Americans were threatened to be ejected from their homes.” Could you elaborate on that?

AQ: I had a much longer section on this, which I took out because, again, I felt like it periodized the book and made it overly pandemic-oriented. But I’m very struck by this concept, partially because a lot of people in my world are war reporters and do trauma therapy for reporters. Vanessa Gezari wrote a piece on being a war reporter and feeling as if she was participating in an American project that wound up leaving the Afghans in a really bad position—a form of moral injury. I think whether you know it or not, a lot of the pandemic involved passive participation in things that put others at risk, from curbside delivery on. What I’m seeing now is that people are rushing to forget the pandemic, and I think there’s a wisdom of the pandemic that we need to keep, that we can’t forget the moral injury of it all. We can’t forget frontline workers, mutualism, greater self-reflection, and a more microcosmic existence.

RF: You advocate throwing out the term “side hustle,” since it falsifies and cloaks the reality of “stressful work lives.” What would you use in its place?

AQ: “Bad jobs.” Part of the problem is the glamorization: You say that job is a “hustle,” when you mean it’s a ton of different work and you’re trying to imply creativity or sex appeal. So what would be a better term? “Frontline work” was good. And there’s also other related language I want to replace, like “unskilled labor”—I don’t believe there is such a thing as “unskilled.” Sometimes we need to be less positive about exploitative work, and sometimes we need to be more positive in the sense that work is not unskilled, and it’s also not a “side hustle”; it’s an all-consuming search for contingent work that many people have to go through.

RF: In your book, you write that one way to “fight the con of the side hustle is by organizing.” I’m wondering if you would care to share any thoughts, as a former freelance writer, on initiatives like the Freelance Solidarity Project? Do they make you hopeful that conditions for freelancers will improve in five years, even as Governor Kathy Hochul recently vetoed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act?

AQ: That’s a great question. I don’t know, given all the layoffs that are happening right now at The Washington Post, Vox, BuzzFeed, CNN. The St. Cloud Times lost its last reporter. I think a lot of the problem is owners wanting to make avaricious profits, like 20 to 30 percent profit margins. So the hope in the media industry is in nonprofits, or at the very least finding media company owners who have different sets of financial expectations. There’s also going to be more and more freelancers, and the hope is that we have this black-turtleneck-worker uprising that I’ve written about that includes reporters, adjuncts, museum workers, and staff at my own publisher, HarperCollins, who see themselves in solidarity with other workers’ movements.

RF: The pandemic has made abundantly clear how dependent our formal economy is upon care work, which falls disproportionately on women and people of color, who are poorly compensated. Are there countries that you think have made more progress on this front and can potentially serve as a model for our health care system?

AQ: In the book, I write about how the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, and New Zealand have strong, government-supported social safety nets. But they also have the world’s highest volunteerism rates. The two are not exclusive. In the US, you have this negative correlation: You volunteer because you don’t have the support. I wound up putting this in the end notes, but a study in the American Economic Review found that Italy and Sweden had very low, cynical ideas about mobility, much more so than the US. In Sweden, 1.6 percent of the GDP is going to day care, whereas in the US, it’s 0.5 percent of the gross domestic product. That’s a big discrepancy, and that’s just for childcare.

RF: In a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, you wrote about how the EHRP has been partnering with nonprofits to create a “database of experiential experts” who may not have traditional expertise, but who have extra-formal experience as labor organizers or gig workers. Are there types of stories or specific kinds of work—for instance, the work of doulas or midwives, to bring it back to caregiving—that you think are still lurking in the shadows and that you’d like to draw out more?

AQ: The EHRP is currently building that database, and it’s one that we hope reporters will use. With the care list, as someone who has written a lot on caregiving, I really wanted to have people who ran day cares on this list, and not just people at Brookings. Not that there’s anything wrong with Brookings! But there’s a qualitative difference when a story is told by someone with hands-on experience.

I did an event with two members of the working-sources database, one of whom ran two day cares, and the other who’s an organizer around harm reduction. Just to hear their lived expertise was tremendous. The harm reduction advocate had been in prison and not allowed to be on methadone or its equivalent, and they were able to talk about carceral policies in the same breath as their firsthand experience. It was very intense, and it made me think: “What if sourcing was like this? What if people who are reporting stories on drugs didn’t call the cops—which is what reporters often do—but called this person instead?”

Some of the new areas in our database are going to be militarization (not the generals, but people who work as archivists of human rights abuses, soldiers, vets—that kind of thing); housing; and oral and local histories. Especially in parts of the country where certain kinds of lived history and the history of marginalized people are being denigrated, I think it’s important to have these sources. Instead of having consensus experts, I’d like for these “ordinary people” sources to also be the idea experts. Often the “ordinary subject” is a person suffering, and the person with the wisdom and specialized knowledge is brought in from stage right to save them, in an article or a documentary. But what if we had experts who had both of these qualities available for interviews? This goes back to Barbara’s mission when she founded the EHRP.

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