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Could We Please Stop Pontificating About the American Dream?

It means different things to different people. In the end, it doesn't really mean much at all. And there's very little that politicians or government can do to uphold or restore it.

A few weeks ago, in a speech to the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin asked a loaded question: "Do we want to be a country … where tens of thousands of people die from a virus — or where the American Dream lives?" I know the answer to that one, but it's setting the bar a bit low. Of course we all want to escape the ravages of the coronavirus, but once we've done that, does it make any sense to say we've achieved the American Dream? The more you think about that assertion, the sillier it is.

The following week, however, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California ventured quite a bit further. "As Republicans," he told the GOP convention, "it's our mission to renew the American dream — restore our way of life."

Political leaders like to talk in these grandiose terms, especially to partisan audiences, but this year we seem to be suffering from an outbreak of American Dream fever. It's hard to tune in to any political gathering without hearing the magic words.

Sometimes it reminds me of idle talk about the Great American Novel. Has there ever been one that critics could agree on? Will there ever be one? No. Will we ever stop pontificating about it? Of course not. But it's a pretty harmless form of blather.

I don't think I can say the same thing about the invocation of the American Dream in politics. When office-holders and candidates keep bringing it up, they are instilling in gullible minds the notion that there is something government can do to fulfill our deepest-held wishes for satisfaction. We'd all be better off if we stopped pretending that. Neither federal nor state nor local government can wave a wand (or pass a law or issue a proclamation) that will reward us with the American Dream.

IT MAY SEEM THAT AMERICAN DREAM FANTASIES must date back to the founding of the Republic, but in fact they are a modern conceit. The phrase "American Dream" was first used in 1931 by the historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. It meant, he wrote, "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone." Better and richer and fuller in what way? He didn't say. Maybe in the middle of the Depression it seemed obvious. It doesn't seem quite so obvious now.

What's clearly true is that the American Dream has meant vastly different things to people in different times and places — if it has any sort of genuine meaning at all.

It's interesting that when ordinary Americans are asked if they feel the Dream has somehow been lost, it is the more recent immigrants who say it hasn't. This could be because they believe they had never attained it to begin with, but I don't think that's the explanation. I think they consider their arrival and continued presence in this country to be the realization of a dream in itself.

That's been the case with previous generations. A couple of decades ago, I spent some time talking to second-generation immigrant families who were able to afford small but neat bungalows on Chicago's Southwest Side. These were people who had spent the Depression and war years in cold-water tenement flats a short distance away. Those two-bedroom brick bungalows were the American Dream for them. But not forever. By the early 1960s, many of them had bought bigger ranch houses with back yards in suburbs south of the city limits. A house with a yard, and a job that supported the mortgage payment, were their new incarnation of the American Dream.

I came away from those conversations convinced that whatever the American Dream might be at a given time, real estate had something to do with it. And I still tend to believe that. There are a lot of people right now with lower-middle-class service jobs in Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle for whom a small affordable apartment convenient to work would be more than dream enough. Maybe that's one piece of the American Dream we could actually work on.

But better housing isn't the only thing Americans like to fantasize about. Millions of them have been persuaded that the core of the Dream for an ordinary family is the assurance that their children will live a better (or at least more affluent) life than they have been able to live. I don't know how this became conventional wisdom, but when you think about it, it doesn't make much sense. Generational prosperity is cyclical, not linear. There are no guarantees, and never have been. If you graduated from high school or college in 1930, you faced far bleaker economic prospects than if you had graduated in 1910. By 1950, things were looking up again. In 2010, opportunity was curtailed by another stagnation. To take it as a given that your children should out-achieve you is to swallow a proposition that ends up causing much of the American public needless feelings of anxiety and nights of insomnia.

WHEN THE AGING DISCONTENTED OF THE RIGHT rhapsodize these days about the American Dream, they are usually talking about an image of the postwar years. It is an image that is based largely on homogeneity. Suppose that in the 1950s you were a decently paid industrial worker in Wisconsin or Iowa, for example, and that you lived in a small town where nearly everyone behaved like you, thought like you and very likely even looked like you. It was a comfortable and reassuring existence. Elite opinion now inveighs against homogeneity and preaches the virtues of diverse communities. But the hard reality is that most people tend to be happier in homogeneous surroundings. Decades of reliable research have proved this to be true, though it may be an uncomfortable fact.

And suppose that, at this point in the 21st century, this same town has been heavily impacted by the disappearance of steady factory work and the arrival of a large cohort of immigrants who speak little English, eat unfamiliar kinds of food, and do the low-paid service work or grubby blue-collar tasks that now dominate the local economy. There is no legitimate reason to resent or dislike these people. But it is not surprising that the old-timers would feel something precious has been taken away from them — that they have lost the American Dream.

It's worth pointing out, though, that as the postwar middle-class Americans of midwestern towns thrived on their version of the American Dream, millions of young people who rejected that world had a safety valve that allowed them to escape from it. For the youthful malcontents of small-town America in the 1950s, the dream to be pursued was a move to New York or Chicago or Boston or San Francisco. It was a job in the arts, or journalism, or in the academy. These were the dissidents who believed in Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that the American Dream was discovery and individualism.

Today, in a new century, the safety valve scarcely exists. There are no cheap apartments available to young people in the hot cities of 2020, and very few appealing starter jobs for them to claim. This is yet another version of the American Dream that can be said to have eroded.

IN 2007, A PHOTOJOURNALIST NAMED IAN BROWN began a project that involved interviewing 170 ordinary people and asking them what they thought the American Dream might be. He spent more than a decade at the task, and he learned a great deal. His conclusions are documented in an excellent recent book, American Dreams: Portraits & Stories of a Country.

Brown discovered that in Red State America, respondents tend to couch the American Dream in terms of personal liberty — often the liberty to carry a gun. Perhaps the current equivalent would be the freedom not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic. A man in Utah said the American Dream was simply having a refuge, a place where he could be free from the indignities of oppressive government.

For Blue State America, the dream more often had to do with safety and personal security. Sometimes it was very specific. A woman who had lost a child at Sandy Hook told Brown that her American Dream was "to have a country where no child ever experiences the devastation of school shootings." A young African American living in a dangerous neighborhood said his American Dream was simply survival — "to grow up to be a black man."

Ian Brown learned, after years of diligent inquiry, that the American Dream is in the mind of the dreamer. It is not a fixed ideal that anyone in politics or government can credibly promise to uphold or restore.

Brown did, however, evoke one graceful vision that seems to me both compelling and almost universally meaningful. It came from Jordyn Taylor, a young woman in Cleveland, Ohio. "My dream," Taylor told him, "is to have a dream worth dreaming." I think we can all aspire to that.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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