Chun: Another Morning in America

America evolves — so should the things that make us warm and fuzzy.

by Steven Chun | 1/10/17 12:15am

Let’s start out with a really simple question: what’s the most common occupation in the United States? We’ll end with a Ronald Reagan ’84 presidential campaign commercial — but more on that later. The answer, as it turns out, is either long-haul trucker or retail salesperson, depending on how you sort the data. But that’s probably not what you thought it’d be, so we have to ask another question: what things are fundamentally American?

There are common answers to that — apple pie, baseball, fanny packs — but spend ten minutes on your preferred news network, and you’ll get another answer: jobs. No matter which echo-chamber you prefer, conservatives and liberals all pay plenty of lip-service to jobs. People disagree on how to get them and what happens when you don’t have one, but no one disagrees that jobs are good. But given that work is so fundamental to the American Dream, most discourse on the topic completely misses the mark.

It all starts with manufacturing. In a literal sense, manufacturing is the starting point for the selling and transfer of goods. Perhaps that’s why we like the industry so much. The work is tangible and wholesome, but American manufacturing is terribly mischaracterized. Despite, for example, being the only industry discussed at length in the first 2016 presidential debate, 91 percent of Americans work outside of manufacturing. For a job so inherently American, it’s just not an accurate reflection of the state of American employment.

Manufacturing is the poster-child for American industry because the work ethic we associate with manufacturing, its dominance in the 1970s and the oh-so-American ideal of creating make it warm and fuzzy to think about. And none of those things are bad in any way.

But here’s the stickler: our image of America informs what we aspire to be as a nation. Right now, that image is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century. We’re aiming backwards, and that’s a problem. We need an image of what America can be, not what it once was.

“Morning in America” — technically known as “Prouder, Stronger, Better” — is perhaps one of the finest pieces of political advertisement ever made. Made for the Reagan ’84 campaign, the ad shows happy citizens under orchestral music and calm narration.

“It’s morning again in America,” the ad begins. “Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history.” Hal Riney, the ad’s narrator, then discusses lowered interest rates, comparing 1984 with the prior administration’s record of four years prior. “This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married,” the ad continues, “and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Work, marriage and home ownership. It’s just so freakin’ American. But each and every one of those campaign ideals has changed. America is no longer a nation of farmers or factory workers; we decided that the bond of marriage is a right afforded to every person regardless of sexual orientation; and you can share your car and rent out your home from your phone. These concepts are still very much part of our national identity. — they’re just different. In almost every way, they’re better.

The Morning in America motif isn’t just about morning commutes: it evokes renewal in the arrival of a new day. The United States has gone through that renewal many times over. We may have forgotten that every single concept that evokes Americana does so not because they are symbols of ye-olden times, but because they are symbols of bold change. Our very form of government was a drastic break from the norm. The assembly line, the basis for all modern manufacturing, was an American innovation. We (kind of) invented baseball. At the very least, we made cricket way better.

So in accordance with tradition, we should welcome the things that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our notions of normal. We can begin by reinventing the image of the American worker.