Cheering And Bemoaning The Death Of The American Dream

Duly Noted

The wisdom of burning bridges one wishes to use to cross the river.

Some weeks ago, a German TV station showed a program about the American Dream. Regardless of rather pessimistic personal expectations, the program could not be skipped. Indeed, true to form, the long report concluded that the American Dream, once the key to general satisfaction, integration, and social peace, has faded. Accordingly, the certificate of death of the sustaining social myth and with it for the US was issued. 

In itself, a depiction of discovered facts, depending on what uncensored evidence the reporters encountered, is legitimate. That leaves the rationality of the reasons to welcome the finding that insinuates that the bad news is the good news, open to scrutiny. America in decline? Perhaps. Is that good news? That depends on who you are.

The term is difficult to define. This is the case even if one has shared the Dream and remains attached to its substance. Politically, the American Dream has been a force that has the honor of having been challenged by two very different foes. While it controlled the commanding heights, the “reactionary right” felt its feathers ruffled by the Dream. Once that force lost its dominance, the ideologically drunk Left took up the cause of fighting the Dream -as well as everything else America was thought to stand for. Both forces and the power structures behind them were from their point of view correct in the choice of their foe. The common man’s emancipation and sovereign comportment ignored self-appointed leaders and thereby it threatened the authoritarian power of any elite. Both the Right and the Left were opposed to systems that granted the common man the opportunity to take what he regarded as his due. Elitist authoritarians prefer to hand out as rewards for obedience what they regard as deserved by submission. Accordingly, such regimes in which political and economic power flows from the top down and not from the bottom up are threatened by the autonomy of those that anointed leaders see as born to be led.

The historical record written by the American Dream has had several functions. For one thing, there was the belief there is a social justice that it rests on performance and merit. Such a concept of a just society and the implied mobility undermined the revolutionary inclination of those that lived within that system. The mass seeking a good life for here and now and participation in happiness attained its goal due to personal achievement. The commitment to a self-made good fortune made those that had been led by that concept unsuited to serve as followers of egalitarian gurus. Autonomous individualists were unsuited as followers for leaders that promised salvation to those willing to be led into a collective paradise run according to rules determined by prophets. Marxists called this immunity “false consciousness”. The term implied that, those striving as individuals in the pursuit of their personal good fortune instead of a system of benefits extended equally to all, were misled by a pie in the sky. 

The belief that encouraged individuals to strive had an additional effect. These proponents of the idea were convinced of the ultimate justice of rational (performance) determined rewards for those judged to be worthy of it by their peers. The upshot has been unprecedented productivity and wealth generated by the system. Those results meant that there was plenty to be divided while the determination of the principle of the division was left open. Paired with a rational –that is input-based- distribution of the collective wealth created, most people could acquire a share of whose essential justice they were convinced. While the share allotted to each has not been equal –except that it corresponded to what was considered the value of the input- the result has been satisfaction with the present that was paired with a hope for the future. In the context of such a general satisfaction with what one had and what was thought to be the just lot of others, contentment resulted. Consequently, “leaders” were not in demand. Those craving that role lacked support in the unresponsive crowd. 

Indeed, those that think that they can build their own city on the hill respond with a yawn to offers for a shack in the valley. 

Does the foregoing insinuate that, by the standards of theory, the upshot was a perfect social order? Not by any means. Nevertheless, the order had been perceived as reasonable and as such as just. Given that view, the system, and ones lot within it, was thought to be perfectible by its participants. This conviction forged widespread support.

Those readers of the column that know America and especially the ones that live there will agree that, the American Dream has never corresponded fully to an achieved reality. It was a goal and as all dreams, an aim to be pursued even if, as in the case of all ideals, the objective remained unrealizable. The main positive function of the Dream has been that individuals sought personal success through their own betterment and considered perceived inadequacies as surmountable. This feature made the institutionalized discrimination of America’s Blacks solvable. That achievement, while considered elementary now, is in reality astonishing. Hardly any imaginable system would have tackled and overcome such a task without disintegrating. 

Admittedly, the American Dream, in part, because it is a concept that addresses individuals, has less of a hold on American society than it used to. This is so because some organized groups have replaced the pursuit of individual happiness by a collective criterion. Part of the abandonment of the Dream has to do with trading personal success that propels the striving out of the average, with collectively guaranteed minimal standards allocated according to membership and by fixed quotas. The result is that the American version of “Socialism” has replaced, at least for some segments of society, the original individualistically defined Dream's goal.

As noted earlier, the apparent fading of the American Dream has elicited satisfaction by the reporters and, presumably, among some viewers. This reaction and the distorted perspective behind the “schadenfreude” reflect an attitude that would not emerge if man would be a fully rational being. Welcoming a weakening America and of the waning of the myth that holds it together, is a case when someone’s gut wish contradicts that same person’s cerebrally graspable interests. 

Europe’s six recent decades, the rising level of economic well-being, the ability to be able to afford welfare-based prosperity, but primarily her security, thrived under an umbrella provided by the USA. To the extent that the Continent could escape totalitarian domination and the imposition of collectivist rule and the implied terror, it was a beneficiary of America. US power and the will to bear a risk that she could have avoided –while persevering without the fully committed support of the protected- provided Europe with good years to thrive and to mature. Given the inadequate fences that continue to secure that prosperity, the protection of the “interventionist”, cursed as a “hegemon” and as a “cowboy”, is still needed as a reserve. For that America, if it would not be America, could demand some of gratitude it does not get. However, if no gratitude is asked for or extended, then, how about a bit less demonstrative hostility?

Interesting Topic

This is a relevant and interesting subject. My questions are:

a) Did the German program cite any facts or statistics?

b) Was there a progressive comparison made at other intervals in America's history down thru the present to show that the attainability of the American Dream had become easier or more difficult?

Personally, as a direct product of the American Dream (my father is an immigrant; I went to university on Pell Grants, etc.) I myself am living proof that at least for some, the Dream is attainable.

That said, I do not doubt that for today's American youth, social mobility may be more difficult than it was for me.

Still, it is hard to know whether - over the arc of history of non-native immigration into this country - things have become more or less difficult. After all, there were poor houses in Nieuw Nederland in the 17th century just as there were others who became fabulously wealthy.