In her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Kamala Harris, then California’s Attorney General, stated, “The American dream belongs to all of us. And if we can work together and stand together and vote together on November 6 for President Barack Obama, that’s a dream we will put within reach of all our people!” Most Americans have often heard the word “dream” thrown around by politicians and political pundits in their attempts to sway public opinion. However, those accustomed to American politics know that dreams mean more than just mere electoral rhetoric: Dreams are part of the American experience.
To understand America is to recognize the power of dreams: desires that individuals devote their lives to achieving. While dreams are often associated with positive connotations, there are times in which men can be misled by their own visions. Being misled by dreams has often been one of the biggest problems amongst contemporary single-issue activism.
In order to understand this dream dilemma, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men offers an analogy. Published in 1937, Of Mice and Men tells the story of the companionship between a quick-witted man named George Milton and his close friend Lennie, a giant, friendly man with mental disabilities. Over the course of the book, Steinbeck develops a story that offers audiences both hope and tragedy during the onset of the Great Depression. Steinbeck constantly refers to George and Lennie’s desire to purchase a farm. Both seek to fulfill their dreams through the farm: Lennie dreams to one day raise rabbits and George dreams to be free from the demands of society. Steinbeck closes the story with George killing Lennie out of supposed mercy, leaving himself in a state of depression.
While this is an oversimplification of Steinbeck’s story, his characters George and Lennie offer two paradigms through which we can analyze the two different mindsets that exist within American politics.
The first group are the Lennies, whose personality and behavior are dictated solely by their narrow beliefs or dreams. These individuals often hold to the idea that if they enact the right policies or conform society to their worldview, then the world will enter an age of utopia, void of any previous wrongs. I had a chance to meet people with this mindset during my internship with the American Spectator this past summer. During my ground reporting of the D.C. Dobbs protests, I talked to die-hard advocates from both sides.
Certain pro-choice people that I interviewed believed that they needed to take extreme measures to codify Roe. They wanted to do so that they could fulfill their dream of a society where abortion could be easily accessible and women would not have to worry about their health and life.
Some in the pro-life crowd saw Dobbs as a green light for total bans on abortion across the nation. Though their dream for a country that upholds the dignity of life accords with Scripture, some totalized the issue of abortion bans to the neglect of all other issues. Besides being opposites, both these groups at the protests exemplified the Lennie mindset: they saw all things as pivotal issues in turning their dreams into reality.
The second group are the George Miltons. The George Miltons within American society usually do not receive warm welcomes by the public. The Georges are those who are often well versed on political material and very calculative in their actions, ensuring that their emotional attachments do not override their ability to reason. These individuals have their own dreams that they would ideally see become reality, but they recognize the limitations of fulfilling such dreams and thus approach dreams seeking to find what optimal outcome they can feasibly get — not total, immediate realization of their dreams. The George Milton types are willing to admit that there are dreams that can never be realized, which is where these types derive their unpopularity amongst those who believe that all dreams can become realities. It is understandable that no one wishes to hear that their dreams are unrealistic and unachievable, but one cannot conjure all things that dwell in the theoretical into existence.
Now, when taking this analogy to the next level, there arises a fundamentally critical issue that the Lennies, seeking perfection in an imperfect world, often neglect to acknowledge. As Steinbeck said during his 1962 acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize award:
The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
The idea that man can somehow seek out perfectibility in an imperfect world has been often refuted due to its impracticality. As Alexander Hamilton once said, “I never expect a perfect work from an imperfect man.”
The “abolitionist” faction of pro-lifers may be seen as seekers of perfectibility. Abolitionists push for prosecuting women seeking abortion. Such rash, totalizing moves are not the way to win hearts and minds. Excessive force will not convince our country of the truth. Compassion and generosity – with conviction – will achieve the most. This moral conundrum is derived from the dream dilemma: it encourages single-issue activists, such as the “abolitionists” in the pro-life movement, to discard the limitations of the moral order, which incentivizes irrationalism and destructive manners to arise.
The dream dilemma even runs in contradiction to biblical teachings. Father John Langan, a research fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says,
To paraphrase St. Ignatius, ‘Every good citizen ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it.’ This frame of mind is especially necessary when we are making a case in moral terms which, as we have seen, puts demands on other persons.
When we are making a case in moral terms, we must be careful about how much force we use on others. To glorify God is to illustrate his wisdom and mercy as compassionate servants for his purposes, not as zealous slaves to our personal beliefs.
Despite the downfalls that the dream dilemma has taken on in American politics, we should not be disturbed. Georges can help the Lennies of the world. Understanding our limitations, we can search for an optimal outcome, one that does not sublimate all to a single dream. Even in the darkest days of our nation’s political situation, the light of God’s wisdom will prevail as we attempt to heal our nation’s political culture.