Dissecting “The American Dream”

Jack Fleming, Columnist

The American dream is not dead. But it’s certainly not an ideal with universal attainability; dedication and hard work are by no means guarantees of economic mobility and prosperity in our country. It’s time to see the American dream for what it really is: an idealistic goal that disregards a rational and realistic understanding of US society in favor of reinforcing the myth of America as a flawless meritocracy where the smartest and most gifted inexorably rise to the top. While democracy and freedom may make the ideal a possibility, crippling economic inequality and stagnant rates of economic mobility relegate the ideal to just a dream and not a reality in the vast majority of cases.

Defining the American dream is an immensely difficult proposition. Sweeping political rhetoric also makes it hard to pinpoint the ethos of the ideal. Is it purely material? Or is it perhaps partially familial and less individualistic – hard work as a means of ensuring a better future for one’s family? Is Gatsby-like wealth a necessary part of it or could it be more about reaching middle class, suburban prosperity and stability? We don’t need to definitively answer these questions in order to see common threads between varying interpretations of the dream. Each interpretation undeniably revolves around progress and positive changes in personal circumstances.

Having hopes and dreams for a better life should never be discouraged. The American dream, though, can be insidious because it’s not a distant and abstract conception. Unlike vague hopes for the future, this particular dream is active, present and an ingrained part of the greater American consciousness. This is extraordinarily problematic where failure is concerned. Occasional triumphant rags-to-riches stories are drastically outnumbered by tales in which hard work and playing by the rules don’t result in any semblance of success or economic mobility. If economic mobility is this rare, we must acknowledge the objective truth that our American dream – however it happens to be defined – is largely unattainable. Failure to meet the dream’s ideals despite one’s best efforts is not just a personal failure; it is also a failure of the American economic system.

Present-day income inequality in America resembles that of the Gilded Age when Rockefeller and Carnegie ruled the roost, monopolizing their respective industries. In noting the societal consequences of such inequality, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert Putnam repudiates the idea of an American meritocracy where abilities and intellect are the sole predictors of success. Putnam notes, “Smart poor kids are less likely to graduate from college now than dumb rich kids. That’s not because of the schools, that’s because of all the advantages that are available to rich kids.” It wasn’t always like this; according to Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project, the percentage of children earning more than their parents has been steadily falling since peaking at around 90 percent during the 1940s.

Declaring that the American dream is alive and well would be a whopper of an alternative fact. It doesn’t take a democratic socialist to understand that when most of the wage increases since the 1970s (adjusted for inflation) have gone to the top 1 percent of earners, we have a problem. Work hard. Strive for dreams that may seem impossible. But please understand that our present-day American dream is much more dream than reality.