The term “American Dream” dates back to James Truslow Adams’s 1931 novel The Epic of America. As Adams describes it, it is:
That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…A dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Adams’s conceptualization of the dream blurs the boundary between the social and the economic; it notes both gender equality and wealth-based upward mobility as its pillars; finally, it centers on individual capability rather than structural support. Adams emphasizes in the last clause the anti-aristocratic sentiment of Jacksonian times. But note for instance that Adams doesn’t use the term “equality” anywhere in his explanation of this loose concept, nor does he style the American Dream as an ode to “justice” or “fairness.” Note also that Adams preferred to operate under the term “should,” not “is,” suggesting that the American Dream, in this particular conceptualization, is not expected to encompass each member of society.
Today, perhaps we think of the American Dream in several different ways. We might materialize it in our minds, thinking of the ‘50’s-style suburban idyll that mandated a house, a car, two-and-a-half kids, and a dog. HUD Secretary Ben Carson commented obliquely on this idea at a conference in 2017, telling press “I worry that millennials may become a lost generation for homeownership, excluded from the American Dream.” But a classic materialist conception like this one arguably prioritizes cultural uniformity over economic status. The opportunity that the American Dream is rooted in, along these lines, means looking and behaving like one’s neighbors, shedding outstanding cultural characteristics, and emulating an American normality prescribed en masse. It presupposes listening to rock and roll, wearing blue jeans, and working a desk job as the respective pinnacles of the American life. The American Dream, then, is to become aesthetically American and not, as Adams may have believed, to grow “to the fullest stature” of which one is capable.
Looking at the American Dream a different way, we might interpret it as more of a trajectory than an end point. Such a procedural approach may focus on the presence or absence of structural barriers to one’s personal economic growth--the Dream here means being unimpeded by government or various implicit societal institutions in the struggle for success. Adams came closest to this conception in 1931, but even before him, authors like Horatio Alger Jr romanticized the hard work and grit of urban street urchins, who eventually clawed their way to wealth. Procedural approaches vary: some focus on the generational upward mobility that swept the mid-20th century (90% of children born in the 1940s ended up with a higher absolute income than their parents), while others emphasize relative mobility (the probability that a child born in the bottom quintile will rise to the top quintile rests at 7.5%).
Finally, we may see it as a societal state--a collection of ideals that must apply to everyone in order to be at all functional. Perhaps the most significant exponent of such a conception was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermon titled “The American Dream” given at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in July 1965 echoed a mantra of individual equality:
I would like to deal with some of the challenges that we face today in our nation as a result of the American dream. First, I want to reiterate the fact that we are challenged more than ever before to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality. We are challenged to really believe that all men are created equal. And don’t misunderstand that. It does not mean that all men are created equal in terms of native endowment, in terms of intellectual capacity—it doesn’t mean that. There are certain bright stars in the human firmament in every field. It doesn’t mean that every musician is equal to a Beethoven or Handel, a Verdi or a Mozart...There are individuals who do excel and rise to the heights of genius in their areas and in their fields. What it does mean is that all men are equal in intrinsic worth.
The American Dream may also be founded on democracy, and the provision of an unabridged political voice to silenced or disadvantaged cross-sections of the population. It might be a distilled form of personal liberty--77% of Americans said “freedom of choice in how to live” is essential to their conception of the American Dream, according to a Pew study from 2017. In the end, it might be centered on social justice, as this summer’s nationwide protests of police violence remind us.
Now, the question we’re asking this Monday night at 7pm CDT at Political Union, is whether the American Dream, in any or all of the forms discussed above, continues to exist. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and we hope this backgrounder helped deconstruct some of the conceptual obstacles underlying this debate.
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