By the end of the first night of the Democratic National Convention, many journalists and others watching these festivities and last week’s Republican jamboree had had enough. From both left and right there came a bipartisan consensus of kibitzers crying out for a halt to the endless stream of narratives about impoverished or difficult upbringings overcome by hard work and all the other all-American virtues that lead to success. Many a commentator noted that if they had to listen to one more sob story about growing up poor they would scream. Others facetiously promised that after the binge of Horatio Alger tales that they had been subjected to, they would support any candidate, whether liberal or conservative, who would avow they were born to privilege and had squandered a fortune due to laziness and indifference.
These understandable sentiments are the inevitable product of the repetitious nature of the speeches being aired at both conventions. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on a great deal they all seem desperate to convince us they were born in the moral equivalent of a log cabin and that their emergence from their humble beginnings entitles them to our admiration as well as our votes. But as tiresome as this rhetorical feedback loop may be, we ought not to complain too much about it. The reason why politicians feel the need to say these things and why, despite our grousing about it, so many of us long to hear it, is rooted in our national identity. Social mobility is not, despite the efforts of some on the left to disparage the notion, a myth. It is at the core of what means to be American and though we may laugh about it, it is vital that we continue to celebrate it.