By: Patrick Bresette, Director of Programs
On July 2nd, Time magazine ran a cover story on “The History of the American Dream,” marking another cycle in our periodic inquiry into whether the Dream is (or ever was) real. As followers of our work will know, we talk about “the American Dream” as a powerful example of a Master Narrative that courses through our culture and shapes public perceptions in often invisible but influential ways. While the term “American Dream” was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, the Time magazine article explores how the roots of this narrative run back to our founding. It is a story that is also bound up in a parallel narrative about America’s middle class and the belief that shared prosperity is an American birthright. Today, in the wake of the recent economic meltdown and in the face of escalating economic inequality, both of these stories may seem mythical. But these narratives still shape much of our cultural discourse about the economy, about the tensions between individualism and shared fate and, from our perspective, about the role of government in making opportunity more than just a Dream for most Americans.
To be sure, there are criticisms about the American Dream narrative. George Carlin famously quipped that “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” And it is also clear that the Dream has not been equally accessible to all Americans. Throughout our history communities of color have been blocked from access to many of the public tools and investments that made economic mobility and a secure quality of life possible. As a result, a middle class life has been out of reach for many and a fragile reality for others. Just this month the PEW Economic Mobility project released a new report entitled Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations and while it noted that economic mobility still exists, the report found that “African Americans are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from the middle of the economic ladder across a generation.” And there are sharper critiques that suggest that the American Dream is based on a dangerous mythology and has been pursued at a deep cost to cultures and shared resources. In a speech in Austin, Texas last year University of Texas professor Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, spoke of “the Anguish in the American Dream” because it was made possible only by the annihilation of the native peoples of America, the subjugation of African slaves and the systematic exploitation of natural resources that has left our planet reeling. In Jensen’s view it is more nightmare than Dream, but he recognizes how deeply entrenched this story is in the American psyche and he uses his critique to raise important questions about alternative narratives that could help to create a more sustainable future.
But even with these cold appraisals in mind, it is worth reflecting on the definition that Adams used when he coined the term back in 1931:
“ . . . life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement . . . regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position . . .”
Imbedded in this definition is a profound sense of egalitarian aspiration. Truslow speaks about this desire for quality of life – not just the accumulation of material goods – as a unique characteristic of the American Dream. And perhaps this is part of its resilience in the American experience. As Jon Meachum notes in his Time magazine article:
By founding the U.S. on the idea that a man’s natural rights included “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Jefferson, writing in the Philadelphia summer of 1776, put hope at the center of the national drama. The pursuit of happiness is a phrase philosophically rooted in the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment, but it was only in America that the notion moved from theory to broad-based reality.
Master narratives retain their salience and power because they offer a common sense construct for understanding the world as it is, but also because they give us a way of thinking about where we are going. And the best of these stories give voice to our hopes and aspirations – not just our fears.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. understood this well when he delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC; calling his country to live up to the values it professed and to make the American Dream available to all Americans. This sense of aspiration for a better future is why the American Dream narrative still resonates so strongly with the immigrant experience. While the DREAM act may stand for “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors” it is clear what it references. And in California, Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV) is explicitly using an American Dream narrative in their outreach to immigrant communities. In 2011 they launched their “Take Back the American Dream Campaign.” As their website states: “the MIV American Dream narrative starts with core values that the majority of our communities share rather than issues that have traditionally divided us, and seeks to speak to our communities, our histories, and our futures.” Another great organization in California – California Calls places a story about “renewing the California Dream” at the core of their organizing efforts. The power and salience of the dream narrative is evident in how frequently it is referenced and how pervasive it is in cultural discourse – from “Rebuild the Dream”, the initiative launched last year by Van Jones, to a special series on NPR – American Dreams: Lost and Found. Type in “American Dream” on Google and you’ll have 29 million links to peruse.
But what makes the dream real? Because dreams do not come true on their own. It was encouraging to note that Time magazine recognized the invisible actor in the story of the American Dream – government:
“[T]he American Dream would not have unfolded the way it did without a sometimes uncelebrated and always unpopular partner: the federal government . . . the government has often fueled American’s prosperity by enabling citizens to use their ingenuity and ambition to make a better life for themselves and their neighbors.”
Today’s challenge is to reclaim this part of the story. If we are to make the dream of shared prosperity real we must make an affirmative and assertive case for the central role that government must play in the next chapter of our American story.
The American Dream may have faults and shortcomings but it is one of our most potent master narratives. And it is important to recognize that these sorts of cultural stories are never static, their interpretation and utilization is created anew each generation. How we choose to use this American narrative to drive the change we seek is the real question.
Last March there was a conference in Seattle that focused on “engaged citizenship” and in a piece in the American Prospect that reflected on the weekend’s discussions Courtney Martin talked about reclaiming this American story:
If progressives are going to ethically reclaim the American dream, we’ll have to rewrite its subtext and acknowledge both our faults and successes. Yes, America is a land of vast and titillating opportunity, and we don’t all have the same access to those opportunities. Yes, we are one of the freest and most just nations on earth, and we are also unacceptably cruel and violent — the highest incarcerators with the biggest military force on the planet. Yes, we each have the joy and personal responsibility to shape a good life and we still seem largely confused about what that really means (social science, in contrast to the political rhetoric, tells us that it’s much more about relationships than finances).
Perhaps the real, progressive American dream is a sustained faith and inspired action toward closing the chasm between who we want to be and who we really are, both individually and as a nation. Perhaps the real, progressive patriot is one with the sobriety to admit how far we are from where we want to be and the audacity to believe that we can and will get there. Liu writes in The True Patriot, “Across the span of centuries, America has embodied the very essence of human striving: we have set forth great ideals and have tried to live by them. We have sometimes faltered, sometimes failed. We have always tried again.”
This combination of a clear-eyed assessment of our past and present while constantly striving for a better future together is the best way to keep the American Dream alive. As E.J. Dionne reminds us this has been the case throughout our history: “the genius of America, as de Tocqueville noted, has always rested on our capacity for self-correction and renewal. Americans have been saved from the idea that it is possible to create a perfect world. But we have been saved by the idea that we can create a better one.”
The Time magazine article ends on this same point; the responsibility for passing this story along, for keeping alive the promise that is inherent in the American Dream, rests with each of us:
We are stronger the wider we open our arms. Our dreams are more powerful when they are shared by others in our time. And we are the only ones who can create a climate for the American Dream to survive another generation, then another and another. “If the American dream is to come true and to abide with us,” Adams wrote in 1931, “it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.” True then, and true now.