If America stands for anything, it is a place where economic opportunity is available to any citizen willing to work for it. And as recently as half a century ago, that was reasonably accurate.

Now a gaping hole has penetrated that fundamental of American exceptionality. Facts have emerged proving something far different. The Nov. 14 issue of Time magazine devoted its cover story to the fading American dream.

Not only have the richest Americans run off with the majority of the wealth -- now we learn that the game was rigged.

Several studies of class mobility among countries reveal that the United States trails its peers (France, Germany and Canada) in the ability of low-income children to escape poverty as adults. Countries that really put Americans to shame are the Nordic countries of Scandinavia and Finland.

Compounding the shock of this shattered American dream is the train wreck in Washington.

Our nation bleeds from festering problems due to a government in a straitjacket. Budgets don't get passed, Wall Street doesn't get regulated, energy policy is a farce, infrastructure is neglected, deficits aren't managed, unemployment festers, the economy sputters, and America has lost faith in its political process.

The two parties see opposite paths to recovery, and compromise is equal to treason.

There is however, a silver lining in this lost cornerstone of American exceptionalism. The leaders of both parties could actually agree on a fundamental policy of expanded opportunity.

The door that opens to correct this lost fairness is to make access to opportunity a right of every United States citizen. Today it has deteriorated to a privilege. Kids of wealthy parents have a huge advantage, starting with health care, education, neighborhoods of affluence and parental connections of power.

What's triggered the possibility for political peace is the debate about the spike in the upward wealth accumulation, now reaching levels last seen a century ago. Democrats and a majority of the public favor a reversal of recent income tax cuts for top earners.

Although Republicans fanatically oppose higher taxes, especially for so-called "job creator" rich people, recent prominent voices signal possible compromise.

Conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum told his debate opponents that he's alarmed that European children of poor families are more likely to escape poverty than are American counterparts.

Then Republican Paul Ryan, House budget chairman, addressed an audience of conservatives and argued that instead of class warfare, a better response to the huge wealth gap is "equality of opportunity so people can make the most of their lives."

To this, the Democrats should say, "Great idea! Let's agree opportunity is an American right, like the right to free speech and the right to vote." How could Republicans and especially Tea Party Republicans possibly object?

Why not ask the American people? Should opportunity favor the privileged, or should it be available to all as a right? My guess is that it would be an overwhelming vote for the latter.

If opportunity is a right, then all that needs to be decided is how to make it happen. One answer is pretty simple. Do what they do in Nordic Europe. And what they do not do is redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Wealth is distributed fairly, by right and merit, not privilege.

Having lived in two Nordic countries -- Finland and Denmark -- I have witnessed their policies. This is particularly true for Denmark, where we relocated to study public policies for at-risk children and compare them with policies here in Minnesota.

First, let's be clear that the Nordics are in far better fiscal shape than is America or are the countries of southern Europe. Their public debt is smaller; they have smaller deficits and much lower unemployment.

Furthermore, their poverty rates are a fraction of ours, all in the single digits, compared with ours now reaching one in every four kids.

Their methods for leveling the economic playing field start with providing all young children with healthy conditions for physical and mental development. Surprisingly, much of the research they rely on comes from America's best universities.

The proof is that it works -- these countries have broken the link of intergenerational poverty that afflicts our country.

Maybe best of all, bipartisan peace would restore public confidence in our government if our warring parties would finally agree on economic fairness and then cooperate to make it work.

At issue is the soul of America. Unless opportunity is made a fundamental right, the American dream is dead.


David Strand is chair of the Aitkin County DFL.