The Betrayal of the American Dream

'The Betrayal of the American Dream' by authors Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. (PublicAffairs / August 2, 2012)

Pushed to the limit, a group of workers for a Microsoft subcontractor in China engages in the kind of protest unheard of in the U.S. — they climb to the roof of their factory and threaten to commit mass suicide. No U.S. employer could get away with pushing a company's entire workforce to the brink of suicide.

But the displaced American workers quoted in "The Betrayal of the American Dream" have no idea that it's their pride and dignity that make them a burden to their U.S. employers. Instead, they accept their layoff notices with little protest. They look for other jobs. Many internalize their loss. "Maybe I wasn't a good employee," they say.

A few rail at the base greed of their bosses. But they can't see — as the authors do — the whole big picture of cold, corporate calculus that's cost them their livelihoods.

Only one worker in "The Betrayal of the American Dream" speaks of the possibility of a future day of reckoning.

"When we end up down the road and get where we're headed — which is an elite class and a low class — is the low class going to tolerate that…?," asks Irene Odell, a laid-off information technology worker from Tampa. "Isn't that what inspired the revolution?"

For Barlett and Steele, the American worker is a largely passive figure, manipulated by lobbyists and right-wing think tanks.

And yet, the policies the authors decry in this book are backed by a large number of American voters, including many working people. "The Betrayal of the American Dream" doesn't try to explain why this is so.

"We can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few or we can have democracy," the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis says at the end of "The Betrayal of the American Dream." "But we cannot have both."

It's an argument that has yet to take hold of the American imagination.