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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Must Banish ‘Bootstraps’ Mythology From American Life

“Bootstrapped” author Alissa Quart on the cruelty of the stories we tell about how grit and hard work are the route to success.

Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of the new book Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. Her book looks at the cruelty of the myths of being “self-made” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Quart examines the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and Laura Ingalls Wilder (one of Quart’s chapters is called “Little House of Propaganda”) to show how radically our images of what it takes to succeed depart from the lived reality. She exposes the constraints that keep people from achieving a decent standard of living, and shows how “dependency” isn’t a bad thing—in fact, we’re all interdependent by our nature. Quart’s book shows how people help each other through mutual aid and presents an inspiring alternative to the existing vision of the “American dream.” 

She joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson for a conversation about how the “bootstraps” myth developed and how we can get past it. The transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson 

You open your book with some correspondence. You tend to receive a certain type of correspondence from a certain type of person with a certain type of attitude, and I want to talk about that attitude. You are the Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project [EHRP] and do a lot of reporting on poverty, and the responses you get are often from people who are not sympathetic to the situation of those upon whom you report. 

Quart 

Yes, this is from the comments pages, people emailing me personally, or call-ins if you’re on television like C-SPAN or a radio show. I call it the peanut gallery: voices that are constantly critiquing anyone who is in the falling down middle class and onwards towards poverty, including the subjects of my last book, and probably the subjects of my new book, and many of our contributors because at EHRP, 37% or so of our contributors describe themselves as working class, working poor, or near the poverty line. So, when they write about their lives, many have gone to college or even graduate school, and yet, they’re still in economic stasis, and the audience that bites back at them say things like, “Why did you go to college?” “Why didn’t you go to college?” “Why didn’t you study STEM?” or “Why did you study it?” There’s always a kind of hierarchy of wrongdoing and blame apportioning that is put on anybody who’s not wealthy in this country, and that includes our contributors. “But why did you have kids with two different men?” “Why did you have more than one child?” “Why do you have children at all?” And the thing that struck me after I received the first one hundred of these is just how pleasureless they are because they’re always like, “We haven’t been out to dinner in five years” or, “We’re proudly not formally educated.”

Robinson 

There’s a lot of, “I suffered, so why should anyone else feel entitled to not suffer?”

Quart 

Totally. They’re very much anhedonic. And also, I see that a lot of that with the rejection of canceling student debt. It’s the opposite of schadenfreude. You could probably help me with this, you seem like someone who could: What would be the German word be for wanting people to suffer as you suffered? It’s very specific.

Robinson 

Yes, I’m sure there is a German word for it, but I’m not sure it should introduce it to the language. But, that is very much the case, and it somewhat poses as an argument about justice. That is, it’s not fair for these people to get their student debt paid off when I had to go through years and years of struggling to try and pay off my mine. But you have a sense that it’s not grounded in a deep theory of justice.

Quart 

It’s grounded in, in part, something called the “Just World Hypothesis” or the “Just World Theory” coined in the 1960s by Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist. He did a study in Kansas where he had a woman posing as someone getting electric shocks. It’s very much that 1960s moment when this happened—every experiment in the 1960s involved shame, women, and shocks. So, this woman was supposedly being shocked. She was an actor and actually wasn’t, but was dressed like a student with the other students were watching her, and the shocks intensified. These were students who agreed to be in a study, and the students believed she had done something wrong. They didn’t have any intelligence about what they involved, but they believed she had done something wrong. There’s a strong need, I think as Lerner did, for people to believe that other people get what they deserve. So, this hypothetical woman getting the shocks must have done something wrong because otherwise she would not have gotten them.

Robinson 

The most charitable interpretation of this, and I can sympathize with it a bit, is it’s very hard to accept that you live in a world where many people experience extremely unfair things that they don’t deserve, then die, and nobody ever fixed it. The wrong was never righted. The just world is quite tempting, and I see why people want to believe that.

Quart 

Yes. As I write about, to keep ourselves sane, we twist the truth of life to make existence more bearable. We’re poor or lonely because we’re undeserving. The stranger over there is ill or their last venture failed because they were ineligible or had done something wrong, and vice versa. The millionaire heir or the influencer is a person of merit, which is clearly often not the case. But, that’s the logic that guides much of, I believe, the thinking about why some people are successful and some aren’t, what I call the “self-made myth.”

Robinson 

Much of the book is devoted to discussing these kinds of stories that we tell in the United States. You go back to Emerson and Thoreau, and write about this idea of self-reliance, the self-made man, or the person who without receiving any handouts makes it from the bottom to the top, and therefore provides proof that insufficient grit is what keeps anyone else from doing this.

Quart 

It starts really early in this country. You could say it starts with Benjamin Franklin, but what I found when I looked at the origins of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”—that terrible idiom—or the “self-made man” is that they both emerged in the 1830s. That’s important because it’s a moment of a kind of industrial entrepreneurship, steamboats, and—let’s be frank—also a moment of the enslavement and exploitation of other people’s labor and needing to say that they did that labor. It’s a moment of business, entrepreneurship, and widening social networks in that period, but also a moment of great exploitation that people have to legitimize. So, that’s part of why this all starts in the 1830s.

Robinson 

But as you point out, the original expression “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is intended to be an absurdity because you literally can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. As you explained, the original meaning describes something that could never happen.

Quart 

Yes, so part of why this was important at that time was everyone had boots—the majority of the at least formal workforce was male, and they were wearing boots. You had to pull up these little tabs on the side—I think we still have a few kinds of boots like that, like maybe motorcycle boots or something—and the wealthy people had someone helping them, or had new machines that helped people get their boots on. Otherwise, they were just really struggling every morning, if they were working men, to pull their boots on. So, this idea that you could even to go further than simply pulling your boots, but pulling your entire body up, was like a metaphysical joke, an absurdity. It was understood as such until it got naturalized over time. And that’s the thing with these expressions is that they start out as a joke. There’s nothing more American than having this extreme capitalism understood as absurdity until it’s understood as rich—the perfect progress.

Robinson 

Yes, where we say, “No, that’s actually what we want these people to do.” It reminds me of meritocracy, invented as a satirical term. The guy who invented the term wrote this book about this absurd, dystopian idea of the meritocracy, with the same results as with the “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” idiom. You also write about the Horatio Alger myth, but nobody goes back and actually reads the novels. You actually went back and looked at what these novels were that gave birth to this myth.

Quart 

Yes. Earlier in the pandemic, I was a member of this writer’s cooperative that had a library with Horatio Alger’s books on the top shelf that were either original or close to original editions. They were so bad! He wrote dozens of these books that that were called things like “Ragged Dick” or “Paul the Peddler,” and they all featured a young man making it through “pluck and lock”—those were the two things. But, in truth, when you do a close reading of these books—as an English literature graduate school dropout, I have to earn my ADD cards, so I do close readings—that to do this, you have to meet a wealthy older man. In almost every one of his books is a handsome youth who meets older men who may or may not have untoward desires for him. It’s not really explored in the books what the older men actually want, but there’s an understanding about nepotism, power, and a kind of class mobility and how it really works. And then, nevertheless, this entire narrative is called the “Horatio Alger story,” meaning something totally different: “rags to riches,” “surviving on their own two feet,” and the cleverness of these young men.

Robinson 

There’s a socialist reading of Horatio Alger’s actual novels that is about—

Quart 

More than that, there’s a very perverse reading. He was a pederast, or at least engaged in pedophilia—let’s put it that way—and I found all this great literary criticism from the 1980s and 1990s that were reading these stories as about repressed desire that had morphed into these wealthy men helping these young men out of really untoward impulses. It’s fascinating.

Robinson 

Yes, but certainly not a story of the plucky businessman making it from nothing, starting with 50 cents in his pocket. You also wrote about Emerson and Thoreau—they’re an interesting case, too, because Emerson makes this self-reliance essay. Thoreau, of course, pretends that he lived alone in Walden for years while his mom was actually doing his laundry or whatever.

Quart 

Yes, so that’s true. And he also said he had an “extra seat for conversation” or something to that effect. While he was writing Walden, he was giving better gatherings than we were having in the last couple of years in his home. But Thoreau was very brave, but the person who irritated me was Emerson. He’s such a wonderful lyric writer, and there are so many ways to read Emerson and Thoreau, especially Emerson’s quite emphatic, mysterious prose. You could read it as rejecting conformity and traditional religious forms. But there’s an insistence on this idea of self-sufficiency throughout all his books, but Emerson was dependent on the fortune of his wife who passed away, and then was totally dependent on the services of his second wife named Lydian. There is this amazing passage he wrote where she was described as a compulsive cleaner and cleaned their house from top to bottom, and then the next day gave birth. So, he had so much support in his self-sufficiency. That’s the point I’m making throughout this book.

Robinson 

Yes. And I take it the point there is not just to cast Thoreau and Emerson personally as hypocrites, but to expose the fact that nobody actually lives an independent life. It’s just not a real thing.

Quart 

No, it’s not a real thing. And yet, today we have the “rise and grind” culture—the “grindset.” People have been enjoying sending me these videos of these guys saying, “You can do it, hustle yourself to success.” That’s the current version of it, for better or worse. There’s just not an acknowledgment of the vulnerability that we have going into the world and, honestly, leaving it. The majority of us will be disabled at some point, and, obviously, aging is not something that’s easy to do without help.

Robinson 

Yes, we all need help. I think one of the things that your book caused me to do is think much more about the words “dependency” and “dependence.” On the right, there’s been a long-standing effort to cast dependency as some sort of inherently negative thing, but I came out of your book thinking we should reclaim that depending upon others is foundational to being a human person in a society.

Quart 

Yes, and I actually call it the art of interdependence because I’m trying to be more multivalent. The original meaning of dependent was to hang on or to hang together. And to me, that is what dependence means. It means leaning or hanging together, and not like this other thing, the word entitlement—that’s another favorite of the right, to shame and blame people for needing things that are often basically human.

Robinson 

To return to the foundational myths of self-reliance and independence, I have to ask you about Little House on the Prairie because you have a whole section on this called “Little house of propaganda,” which I think is not how most people conceive of the charming American frontier classic.

Quart 

Yes, some of this is quite fun.

Robinson 

That’s true. You’re not bitterly denouncing Little House on the Prairie.

Quart 

No, I’m not denouncing; however, I had to deal with a lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series—they’re not all Little House on the Prairie. My daughter got really into them when she was seven or eight, and we wound up watching the show, which is endless. I would think, “When will this end?” but no, there’s the Christmas special and reruns. I hated this when I was a child because it came out when I was a kid in the 80s, and thought, “I still hate this.” But, I actually liked the early seasons, but whatever. 

Robinson 

Did you hate it as a child? Do remember what your feelings were? 

Quart 

I really did not like Michael Landon. And I wrote in the book that he reminded me of Reagan and the lie of self-reliance, which I feel I must have had some serious issues with early on. But, I enjoyed it. I read all the books. However, there’s something about the idea that they just muscled through and they did it on their own. I looked into this, and Pa and Ma were beneficiaries of the Homestead Act of 1862, the biggest land giveaway in this country. This is documented in Prairie Fires, a wonderful book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pa was a terrible farmer and all his neighbors were bringing them vegetables—even the dependence on a hyper local level was there as well. So, I felt a need to expose some of that because this was the sort of the YA [Young Adults] gateway drug to self-reliance or “Girlbossery.”

Robinson 

They also depended on the federal government to expel the original occupants of the land for them.

Quart 

Yes, we appropriated the Kansa, or Kaw, peoples’ lands in what is now called Kansas. It was 160 acres for each family, and if you think about the millions, over time, that land has produced for security and as an asset for mostly white families, it’s pretty stupendous.

Robinson 

What is interesting is analyzing these stories and looking for the moments of dependence that go undiscussed. I wrote a whole article about billionaires’ memoirs a couple of years back after I read a huge stack of them. I was always on the lookout for the moment where someone else gave them a huge leg up, whether it was Sam Walton’s father-in-law giving him a loan equivalent to $300,000 today, or like when Richard Branson’s aunt purchased the recording studio for him. There’s always something like this when you look, and these are intended to be memoirs of self-reliance.

Quart 

Yes, it’s a good exercise. We should be doing this actively with people like Elon Musk and others. I remember during the election when Michael Bloomberg was a Democratic nominee, he said, “I built these companies,” and then Bernie Sanders responded, “You didn’t do it yourself!” Unbelievably good moment, like a perfect time-lapse of what happens in these biographies of these guys who say, “I did it,” and you say, “Didn’t your dad give you startup funds?” There’s no shame or blame on either side of this, but let’s not pretend that there’s a moral perfection in making it when you’ve been given this level.

Robinson 

Right, because we all depend on other people, and none of us actually do make it on our own. We’re not saying you should have made it on your own. But as you point to throughout, there’s something quite cruel about making people feel as if their failures are their own fault, and that if they had been better and worked harder, everything would have been different. 

Quart 

It’s very cruel: the stigma, self blame, and shame. I started writing this book because I had written Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America about what I call the middle precariat, which is the precarious middle class. I wrote about that in this book too, the way brainwork has become gig work, and so on. What I saw over and over again was the shame and blame that many of these people that I interviewed spoke about. They would say, “I did everything right”—that was their refrain. And again, it’s as if doing everything right can have a protective value, it should be better than this, and that’s what they kept saying. It made me want to look at the ideological and psychological underpinnings that would make dozens of different people say the same thing about their lives.

Robinson 

One of the billionaire memoirs I read by Joe Ricketts—

Quart 

The terrible guy who sold off all the newspapers? We actually set up, at EHRP, a Ricketts Fund for those who were destroyed by this man. Was he in equity, or what was his bracket?

Robinson 

TD AmeriTrade. But he’s a really evil guy, and a racist, too. He said all these horrible Islamophobic comments. But I bring him up because his billionaire memoir is called, The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get, which is a phrase that I also read in your book. If you believe that and find yourself in an unlucky position, then it proves that you should have worked harder.

Quart 

Right. It’s very hard to untangle this for people who have come to believe this. If you spent your whole life working really hard believing that this will produce results, you don’t want to, at 42 years old, forget that and pretend none of it had happened. You want to keep believing. It’s like throwing good money after bad, that more hard work will resolve this for you. But, since 60% of wealth is inherited, it seems very unlikely. Not entirely—we should also say that there is such a thing as talent and skill, and I’m not saying that doesn’t exist. You do have to work really hard to get mastery in your area. But that’s different from just doing five different jobs or side hustles and thinking you’re going to be making a living wage. That’s a different issue than trying to become a great artist, or something like that. It’s a different thing.

Robinson 

There are plenty of people who do put in great effort on something, it pays off, and then create something very valuable. They can point to the work they did in creating the valuable thing. But it is also the case that, in this country and around the world, there are many people who toil every day for most of their lives and see very little benefit from it. You mentioned that 60% of wealth is inherited. When you have these correspondents who say, “I worked really hard, and I got everything,” where do you start in showing why this view is false? We’ve talked about the stories that are told, but let’s talk about the reality that people face.

illustration by ben clarkson

Quart 

The last study I read was that CEO pay was, on average, about 399 times that of the ordinary worker. There’s so much inequity in this country that’s structured into our tax rate and how we care for people when they’re vulnerable. One of the things that really struck me when I was reporting this was I talked to somebody who was caring for themselves, in part, with extreme medical issues with GoFundMe campaigns. And I believe in 2018, one-third of all GoFundMe campaigns were for unpaid medical expenses, and 12 million Americans have crowdfunding campaigns to help someone afford their medical bills outside their immediate family. So, this situation shows that luck and pluck is not enough. If you are in that position, how lucky and plucky would you have to be to get out of it? I think that’s the heart of this. I consider my book radical self-help in the sense that if you show structural inequity, and you do it with some humor, people can begin to question their own self-blame. It’s the least I can do as an author or as a reporter.

Robinson 

They might feel a little better as a result. The nice thing about your book is you’re not going to feel worse reading it. Many times we, as progressive critics of society, end up making people feel worse by pointing out all the terrible dysfunctions and horrors, but the counterpart of that is you who made people feel better by helping them to stop blaming themselves for every bad economic thing that happens to them.

Quart 

Yes, to feel good about your existence by feeling bad about America.

Robinson 

I love it. You just mentioned the GoFundMe campaigns, which you have this wonderful term for, the “dystopian social safety net,” which you’ve defined as “things that help people out of their situations, but shouldn’t have to exist in the first place.”

Quart 

The dystopian social safety net struck me when I was producing a film my friend directed, and came across a story for her about these parking lots called “safe parking” where people sleep in their cars, with this particular one in California. I thought, “This should not exist.” Thank god it does, but this should not exist. And honestly, sometimes I feel this about my work at Economic Hardship Reporting Project, that we’re also part of the dystopian social safety net. If we had functional media that didn’t have Joe Ricketts wanting extreme profits, that was unionized, had more national or public television and radio support, and had more nonprofits like ours, we wouldn’t need to be taking care of reporters who were on SNAP [food assistance]. That’s part of the dystopian social safety net. I also consider volunteerism to be part of that, and we saw a lot of that earlier in the pandemic. I followed a few volunteers who were making masks and somebody who was doing COVID tests for unhoused people and encampments, and I kept thinking, “This should not have to exist.” This guy should not be leaving his hospital at nine at night and then doing tests for free. That’s the sort of ragtag network that we’re often turned back on.

Robinson 

Now that I think about it, there are a number of ways in which your organization shouldn’t exist. It was founded by the great Barbara Ehrenreich in part because there is such a gap in mainstream media coverage of the lives of low-income people. So, it should exist because the mainstream media should have been covering it anyway, but shouldn’t exist because, as you say, your organization tries to fix another problem which shouldn’t exist, which is that most reporters are from comfortable backgrounds. When you look at the backgrounds of journalists, most of them aren’t from working-class backgrounds. And then, of course, you shouldn’t have to exist because if it weren’t for a world with severe economic hardship, there would not be an Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Quart 

Right. I call myself a literary social worker, and that’s part of that project. And sometimes success doing what I, and we, do is getting somebody to a point that they don’t need us anymore. So, they’re selling their own work, or they have traditional jobs in mainstream media outlets. That is itself a success.

Robinson 

I did just want to emphasize this point about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project because it can appear to people first as for reporting on economic hardship, but equally, part of what you do is sustaining working-class people’s ability to come into journalism and stay afloat in a time when there aren’t jobs for them. 

Quart

Yes, we often say that part of the problem with the media is it’s rich people writing for middle-class people about poor people. We’d like it to be middle-class and poor people writing about themselves. It’s that simple. You used to have newspapers where people didn’t have college education. We used to have working-class people going into papers, like a trade or magazine writing, paying well enough that people from shabbier backgrounds could stay afloat. That’s how I got into it, but that’s no longer true. Some of what I’m arguing in Bootstrapped and also with our organization is somewhat of atavistic. We have to go back to the past to get to the future. The past held the GI Bill and the Homestead Act and held different definitions of the American Dream—the 1931 definition was much more capacious, and not about “I’m going to grind set myself to success tonight.” 

Robinson

Without being nostalgic, it’s also the case that we tend to forget things have been done that used to exist that no longer do, and need recovering. Obviously, the old vision was that a good 9-to-5 job should give you a decent and comfortable lifestyle. You quote this incredibly dystopian phrase in your book, something that could appear on a billboard for Fiverr or one of the side hustle companies, that “9-to-5 is for the week.”

Quart 

Yes. But some of this comes from creatives—I have a friend who calls it “academic exceptionalism” in talking about academics. It comes from people who did do what they loved. I don’t know how you work, but I work outside the 9-to-5 myself. There is some level of freewill in it, and the ideology around the nimbus of creativity has gone to now describe jobs that are not “do what you love”—not imaginative, and not for people who have agency around it.

Robinson 

You must have shared my reaction to this, which is so depressed, to see Dolly Parton do that update of her song “9 to 5”.

Quart 

I felt deeply betrayed. I saw her in the 1980s when I was a teenager. What company was this for? 

Robinson 

This was for Squarespace. The whole thing was about how the 9-to-5 is not enough, and you need a side hustle or something.

Quart 

Yes, exactly! 

Robinson 

Dolly, no! We loved you! You want to love her. But even Dolly Parton now—that was really the sad thing. If even Dolly Parton, who has transformed in this way, really symbolizes this shift to this horrible, cruel ideology that says if you’re not working constantly, then you pretty much deserve what comes to you.

Quart 

Yes, I was pretty shocked by that. I thought of Dolly Parton as this progressive heroine that has been under celebrated, and then thought, “Oh, no. Do you have to sell out?” This is worse than Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” with Volkswagen.

Robinson 

The one I always cite is Martin Luther King’s speech being used for the Dodge Ram commercial

Quart 

Oh yes, that’s pretty bad. 

Robinson 

The subtitle of your book is “Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.” Rather than the countless books out there, like Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope with the subtitle “Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” your subtitle is, “Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.” Why do you frame and encourage us to think about it in that way?

Quart 

It’s funny. I guess in some ways, it really is something more namby pamby to have it be like “leaving behind” or “reawakening.” No—after doing this reporting, I and many people I know feel imprisoned by this. I wanted it to be a stronger action, but also, in that sense, a more optimistic one. If we’re able to liberate ourselves from it, even to a new one, and if that’s part of the promise, I think there is a moment of radical change there that’s happening. You write about this on your site that we have record DSA membership levels, and what I call the black turtleneck workers, which are brainworkers, organizing, some for the first time, all the way from the University of California system to publishers and media—more imaginative union activity. Union membership overall may be down, but the gig workers who are organizing are doing it imaginatively and publicly, getting a lot more media for it. I feel like we have new representatives, like Maxwell Alejandro Frost, and I think the Congress is about 20% female and a quarter BIPOC. This is new. So, there are reasons to feel like we are being liberated from one American dream to another one. And even if it’s an older one, we’re actually being liberated back to it.

Robinson 

Yes, once you pierce all the myths and deflate Emersonian self-reliance and expose Laura Ingalls Wilder as an anti-New Deal reactionary, it frees us. Once we see through all of this stuff that nobody lives alone, you’re able to then show us all these examples, in the book, of people caring for us, of interdependence, and give a glimpse of a society in which “dependence” is not a negative word, but the central characteristic of a society where everyone needs everyone else.

Quart 

Yes. Darwin has obviously been taken for most of this century as somebody who was interested in survival of the fittest, but he wrote about mutual sympathy and how life is dependent on one another—not just interdependent, but dependent. We live in mutual sympathy. It’s a biologically natural state, for humans and for all kinds of creatures, to live in a state of blameless dependence.


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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