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“Bootstrapped”: Alissa Quart on Liberating Ourselves from the Myth of the American Dream

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We speak with journalist Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, about her new book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, which examines myths about individualism and self-reliance that underpin the U.S. economy and the inequality it fosters. She says a focus on succeeding through hard work obscures the degree to which many rich and powerful people have benefited from social support, resulting in a cycle of “shame and blame” for those who fall short.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show with journalist Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, where she worked closely for years with the late Barbara Ehrenreich. Her new book is called Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. In it, she critically examines the American narrative of self-reliance that emphasizes success as the result of individual hard work. The myth shapes our policies as portrayed in popular culture, including the Horatio Alger stories, Ayn Rand’s books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and television shows like in the Reagan-era series Little House on the Prairie about a family’s life on the American frontier.

That’s the theme music for Little House on the Prairie.

Alissa Quart, welcome back to Democracy Now! You write in your preface to Bootstrapped, quote, “I receive messages from strangers about how the poor are responsible for their own poverty on a routine basis. Those who are economically on the edge, they write, just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Can you lay out what this means, as the granddaughter of a couple who owned a shoe store in the Bronx, why you think a bootstrap is key to understanding the false narrative that has developed in this country?

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. So, what I see — I run this organization that Barbara Ehrenreich and I created, Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and we get these — we got these letters and comments that would be sort of blaming our writers for the poverty they experienced and the difficulties they experienced. And I wanted to get to the bottom of it. What was this about? And the more I looked into it, it seemed like it was just this story of shame and blame that has followed people who struggle in this country since the 19th century. And I really — I see it in the early writings of people like Horatio Alger, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Horatio Alger in particular. You really go into him in the book.

ALISSA QUART: Yes. I mean, Horatio Alger wrote over a hundred novels, and they were all these stories of these young men. They have names like Tony the Tramp or Ragged Dick. And they’re very young, I mean, teenagers. And when you look at the stories, though, supposedly the Horatio Alger story is about luck and pluck, about a young man, through hard work, making it in America, coming from nothing. In truth, he always meets an older gentleman who is rich, who saves him, basically, and makes him into a success story.

Horatio Alger himself was a — committed pedophilic acts, had been a minister, had been chased out of the church in Massachusetts. And I think we need to look at these stories — we need to look at the people who created them — to see some of the hypocrisy, and also the complexity. You know, these young men were not doing this — teenagers were not taking themselves into success stories from nothing by themselves. They had the help of wealthy older people. And that’s really how things work in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the title, Bootstrapped, it struck me, Alissa, because Puerto Rico in the 1940s and 1950s adopted an industrial and economic policy called Operation Bootstrap. It was supposedly, the island was going to lift itself out of poverty. And, of course, the reality was that the method used tax exemptions, federal tax exemptions, local tax exemptions, to lure companies to come to Puerto Rico to set up shop. So it really was not a country lifting itself up. It was using the tax system to benefit corporations that would then help lift the island up. This whole idea of the bootstrap, you talk in your book about how the concept even originally began.

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. So, that’s a great point, that example from Puerto Rico.

I mean, the concept of bootstrapping is an impossibility. You cannot pull on — you can barely pull your boots on by your bootstraps; you certainly can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it started out, actually, in 1834 as a joke. It was a phrase that — an absurdity that somehow became something to aspire to over the decades that passed.

And I think we need to remember it’s still an absurdity. Nobody is able to do this alone. You need infrastructure. You need a tax base. You need parents. You need schools. And this is the message that I’m hoping will get through from this book. And it’s also a message that has to do with the pandemic. It’s things we learned during the pandemic about relying on each other and surviving with the help of others.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you also about something that is bandied about a lot these days in Congress in terms of dealing with financial problems of country: the word “entitlements,” used for referring to Social Security, for example. Could you talk about that?

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. I mean, I think even the word “entitlement” — and part of what I’m doing in this book is looking at the language that people use to demonize people who are financially struggling, this kind of idea of the undeserving poor, and the opposite, the deserving rich. So, I mean, if we look at what just happened at Silicon Valley Bank and other banks that have just gotten a bailout, they’ve gotten entitlements on a massive scale, and yet they’re not being shamed and blamed for it like people who are kicked off of welfare rolls or have to recertify for SNAP on a constant basis. And I think we need to look at the double standard that we have for people who are at the top of the pyramid economically and those towards the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alissa Quart, I want to follow up on that, as the debt is going to be negotiated, the whole debt ceiling, and the question really of these programs being put on the table. You go back in time, and I think your story about Ayn Rand — right? — who wrote The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, worshiped by Alan Greenspan and so many others — the story of Ayn Rand herself, and what she relied on, and how these programs for her were essential at the end of her life.

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. At the end of her life, Ayn Rand, who’s this — I mean, it’s great. Silicon Valley Bank is the perfect segue, because, you know, a lot of these technologists worship her. I think some of them have, like, boats named after The Fountainhead and kind of books that Ayn Rand wrote.

But in truth, at the end of her life, she was dependent on Medicare and Social Security. She had had lung cancer. And she used a proxy, like sort of a friend or assistant, to get those services for her, but they were in her name. And this is somebody who said, “Oh, I’m on my — you know, you have to survive on your own. You know, everybody has to accrue as much power as they possibly can, and that’s the only thing that matters.” And in the end, like so many of us, she was dependent. She was dependent on her acquaintances, nurses, and, ultimately, the state. And I think we need to remember that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You wrote a New York Times piece headlined “Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth?” And in it, you cite a 2020 Pew study which found that 60% of Republicans say personal choices are one of the main contributors to economic inequality. What do you think accounts for this belief?

ALISSA QUART: What I think, there’s something called loss aversion, where you have people who are sort of in the middle class, let’s say — I mean, a lot of the Trump supporters, if we look back at their earnings, they earned like something like an average of $71,000 a year. These were not poor people. But they were afraid of falling down the ladder. And I think that’s something that means that they put too much value almost in the power of their own hard work and determination, to protect them from falling down the ladder. They sort of use it almost as a kind of magical thinking. And so, I think that’s reflected in that study.

AMY GOODMAN: I think what’s so really interesting about your book, Bootstrapped, is the way you look at popular culture, whether we’re talking about Ayn Rand — and as you said, like, ends up on Social Security and using Medicare, needs that, but we think about her as the person who is completely separate from anything like that — to Little House on the Prairie, that shaped so much of the 1980s in popular culture. Talk about the Homestead Act. Talk about what shaped this country, what people relied on, but then what they deny once they rise to the top.

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. So, Homestead Act of 1862 is the biggest, to date, land giveaway that this country has ever seen. And anytime you see these stories about pioneers, including Little House on the Prairie, there’s a great likelihood that they received a parcel of land from the U.S. government, and that was what led to their — you know, their farming and their future success, their property holding. Of course, this land was originally, let’s just be frank, stolen from Indigenous people. The majority of the people who received it were white. Many were men. And that is the story that begins this country as, you know, the West, the settling of the West. And in Little House on the Prairie, in this kind of popular culture, we’re just seeing the rugged individualism. We’re not seeing the social generosity at the root of it.

So, what I’m trying to myth bust in this book, I try to — I keep trying to point out the spaces where people had a hand out and hand up that they may be denying, because I think that’s part of what we need to do. We need to start critiquing the self-made myth in politics, in a contemporary politics and also historically. And we have to go back in the past to get to the future. So we have to look at things like the Homestead Act, and we have to look at things like the G.I. Bill, that were real acts of social giving that have helped people survive. And we need to use them rhetorically when we’re asking for more support for our citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the years, Donald Trump has repeatedly portrayed himself as a self-made billionaire whose only head start was a small loan of a million dollars from his father.

DONALD TRUMP: It has not been easy for me. It has not been easy for me. And, you know, I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars. I came into Manhattan. And I had to pay him back, and I had to pay him back with interest. …

I built what I built myself, and I did it by working long hours and working hard and working smart. More importantly than anything else is by using my own brain. And there was a point where I was making so much, so fast, and it was so easy, that I almost got bored. And it’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: In a chapter on rich fictions, Alissa, you write about how Trump has pushed the myth that he’s a self-made man, and spoke to voters who said this was key to their support for him.

ALISSA QUART: Yeah. There was a study done in, I think, Wisconsin in 2018 that talked to Republican and Republican-leaning voters as they were, you know, deciding in — I think even in the voting polling stations, like, who they going to vote for, and they thought he was self-made, and that that was part of why they said they were voting for him. And when the researchers kind of laid out the ways that he was not self-made, their ardor to vote for him went down by 10%.

I thought it was a fascinating study, and it was something that potentially progressives and Democrats should be thinking about when they’re trying to — you know, when they’re up against somebody who, in Trump’s case, falsely portrays himself as self-made — obviously, beneficiary of Fred Trump and millions of dollars in loans and all the rest, and, you know, not paying his taxes — that once we show people this, that it can actually be a tool for social change. And we need to sort of puncture the myth whenever it crops up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this fixation with the individual effort as determining your success or not, how did that — how did that fare during the pandemic and the enormous sense that people had that they needed help in dealing with the pandemic?

ALISSA QUART: I feel like the pandemic taught us a lot of lessons around the value of what I call the art of dependence, the grace and skill and power of depending on other people in our lives, which we all do on some level. But during the pandemic, we were dependent on people to — you know, so-called curbside delivery, which were people. People were curbside delivery, right? We were dependent on our medical system on a grand scale. We were dependent on the parents of our children’s friends to do remote schooling, if we were doing remote schooling with them, in the so-called pods, which people wound up hating.

But the point being that it was a moment where we recognized how interlocked we were, how complementary. I think there were — we were valuing essential work. We called low-wage workers “essential workers,” “frontline workers,” not “unskilled,” which is a term I really dislike for talking about people who do a good day’s job. If anyone has ever made a pizza, you know a guy making a pizza is not unskilled. That that — we respected those folks. We gave them sometimes hazard pay.

I think the pandemic had lessons for us about valuing each other and valuing a certain kind of worker, or maybe sometimes a little — you know, in a way that wasn’t sustainable for people, unfortunately. But we need to get back there and to remember the sort of value of those moments of togetherness and interlockingness.

AMY GOODMAN: Alissa Quart, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her new book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a digital fellow. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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