A conversation about the American Dream with Jim McDermott

Thanks again to an introduction provided by Tom Campbell, a former U.S. representative himself (and my uncle-in-law), I also interviewed Jim McDermott, a nine-term representative from the seventh congressional district of Washington.  McDermott is a leading Democrat and a professional psychotherapist, so I hoped he could provide some thoughts about the idealism of the “American Dream” from a liberal perspective.  We spoke by phone on November 5, 2007, the same day I talked with Martin Anderson.

As with Anderson, McDermott’s initial response to my questions was both surprising and intriguing.  I expected he would discuss the American Dream in terms of a liberal optimism about progress and the hope of a better society in the future.  Instead, he took a decidedly negative approach and associated it with a deceptive promise made to immigrants coming to this country—a promise more often broken than kept.  McDermott spoke of the painful struggles of his immigrant ancestors when they first came to America, people who were filled with unrealistic hopes and then exploited by powerful others.  The dream “was not always what it was cracked up to be.  Many Americans found it a false dream.”  He asked, “What about people who don’t make it?”

McDermott’s compassion for those who have been left behind clearly underlies his political ideals, especially the cause of expanding health care to include all Americans, and it defines his opposition to Republican policies that neglect the human wreckage caused by the selfish “dreaming” of the economically powerful.

McDermott was understandably reluctant to discuss his personal dreams, or anyone else’s actual dreams.  He recalled losing the 1980 governor’s race due in part to getting “clobbered as a liberal Seattle psychologist,” and ever since he’s been reluctant to offer easy ammunition for his political opponents.

I was sorry to hear that.

Even though I agree almost entirely with McDermott’s political priorities, I felt something was fundamentally missing from his perspective—something that, ironically, I found in abundance in Martin Anderson’s portrait of Ronald Reagan.  It’s a sense of connection with the creative power of dreaming, which I believe is the psychological truth at the core of the national ideal of the American Dream.  McDermott’s skepticism about that dream reflects the liberal virtues of rational clarity and empathy for the suffering of others, but it seems to depreciate the equally liberal virtue of courage to imagine and envision new possibilities and new hopes for the future.

Jim McDermott is the Democratic Representative from Washington

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