You don’t have be mean-spirited or a conservative to accept that the “American Dream”—the belief that our choices are more important than our inheritance, that hard work will secure rising incomes, up-to-date amenities, and greater freedom to experiment and be yourself—doesn’t have the punch it had in our grandfathers' day. The fate of the world’s most powerful liberal one-liner, naturally, concerns liberals even more.
In the National Journal, Amy Sullivan claims the dream has shrunk and is not delivering the same financial and spiritual benefits it did when America was younger. Her essay “The American Dream, Downsized” documents the recent absence of middle-class income growth and explores how the Great Recession has affected expectations and, as important, how winning politicians have learned to trim their appeals for votes.
The subtitle of Sullivan’s essay bemoans: “The middle class now worries more about holding on for dear life than climbing the ladder to riches.” She notes that the Pew Institute found that 85% of Americans prefer “financial stability to moving up the income ladder.” She argues, in fact, that they were consciously invited to make that choice in the last presidential election, with Romney talking wistfully of an “opportunity society” and Obama arguing that collective security was as important.
In American popular culture, however, has anything big actually happened?
The “American Dream,” in fact, was neither as American nor as dreamy as we imagine it was in the past. Nevertheless, what’s left is imposing and is still making history. The question now isn’t whether it’s failing but whether it will remain American or not.
The material elements of the “American Dream”—making one’s way in a more egalitarian society, affording a solid house for a young family, and not having to hide away in poverty in old age—were most widely realized in America in the 20th century. But the dream was not even an American invention.
Every one of its elements was chased—and secured—by millions of healthy white European males who could speak perfect English in England and perfect German in Germany, for instance, and who also attended good Protestant churches—even as thousands and, then, tens of thousands living on the outskirts of those unofficial national dreams were scheming to get to America.
If European dreams had not so often turned into European nightmares there wouldn’t have been much flavor in the American Melting Pot or any special American vision of the future.
Today, the aspirations—if not the exact architecture—of the “American Dream” are being asserted globally. The OECD and other expert observers are telling us that this could be the middle class’s biggest century, expanding from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by as soon as 2020.
Ironically, the biggest challenge now for America’s middle class may be contending with the potency of the “American Dream” internationally. Barack Obama starkly captured this prospect last week in a graduation address. His audience was black but the message was clearly and accurately aimed at all young Americans who have learned how to make excuses:
“We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t,” he said. “It’s not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned.”
The “American Dream” of endlessly rising incomes wherever immigrant families first landed was a caricature. Intelligent Americans of every generation worry about the future—theirs, their kids', and their country’s—as well as want to get ahead.
American risk-takers were invariably careful calculators.
They listened to and recruited scientists, engineers, and the best-trained technicians. They hired on merit because it worked, not because it served an applicant’s dreams.
In tricky times, in politics and at work, Americans tend to favor smart over nice.
Rather than thinking up a smaller dreams, Americans are simply being urged to re-assert the more hard-edged and grounded features of their success. They’re prideful dreams are off-putting. Their intolerance for failure, however, should be better appreciated.