The Polarization of the American Dream
In times of doubt and discord, a country often turns to its national ideals in hope that they will provide guidance and common ground. The lingering economic problems, concerns about American decline, and bitter polarization that have marked the Obama presidency have therefore led Americans to focus on one of the United States’ fundamental aspirations: the American Dream. Both Democrats and Republicans have appealed to this quintessential American ideal in an effort to rally the public behind their plans to revitalize the ailing economy. In the collective imagination, the American Dream represents the freedom to accomplish anything with hard work and see that one’s children are better off than one’s self. These are, at first glance, aspirations that all Americans share. Yet, contemporary Democrats and Republicans hold irreconcilable views about how the American Dream can be fulfilled. At its core, belief in this national ideal can also be a greater source of division than unity because it helps justify unbridled individualism and rationalize the sharp increase in wealth inequality in recent decades.
In the Democratic view, the American Dream is an aspiration that the government must help realize. Last December, Barack Obama traveled to Kansas, the land of his maternal roots, to deliver a major speech on the economy. The President’s message was straightforward: the American Dream is in jeopardy. Growing wealth inequality, he noted, “gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.” While Americans are told that “even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle- class,” Obama said, “the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle-class has shrunk.” Citing the policies of Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Obama affirmed that improving social mobility requires a rather egalitarian economic system and sensible regulations to ensure that the market does not solely benefit the wealthy few.
Conversely, to many Republicans, the American Dream is far more than an aspiration. It is a factual proposition: America is an equal meritocracy where every hardworking person can become rich without government assistance. This belief rests on the notion that the United States is a beacon of freedom, a land of unrivaled opportunity, a classless country that stands apart from the rigid social democracies of Europe, stifled by overbearing governments. In this view, America is the nation where self-made men can succeed and where poor people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. These convictions strengthen the idea that there is little need for the government to intervene in the economy. They foster the conception that the government is fundamentally a meddler, a nuisance, a usurper in a blessed, free country that can chiefly do without it.
Republicans widely believe that a laissez-faire economic model is needed to make the American Dream possible. Interviewed on 60 Minutes, John Boehner, the House Speaker, was moved to tears when explaining his desire that children continue to “have a shot at the American Dream” in the face of the threat posed by the Obama administration’s “big government” policies. Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan has likewise insisted that government economic intervention could spell the end of the American Dream. “We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of income movement between income groups,” Ryan claimed in a speech at The Heritage Foundation. Ryan sought to contrast the United States with Europe, where “top heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class.” The key to preserving America’s superior economic mobility, Ryan argued, is to ensure that America does not adopt social- democratic policies.
Accordingly, invoking the American Dream cannot bridge differences between contemporary Republicans and Democrats because the premises underpinning their views are incompatible. When it comes to fulfilling this national ideal, they respectively see the government as either an obstacle or an enabler. Republicans believe that people are more likely to rise up the social ladder in an economy rendered more efficient by the absence of government regulation, taxes, and public assistance programs. On the other hand, Democrats think that people are more likely to ascend if the government adequately regulates the economy, pursues relatively egalitarian policies, and curbs wealth inequality.
The political divide over the American Dream is not new. Ronald Reagan, for example, argued that the Democrats’ economic policies would “bury the American Dream in their graveyard of gloom and envy.” Walter Mondale illustratively countered that Reagan’s economic program “attacks the American Dream at its most vital and most vulnerable spot—its inherent fairness.” The divide has nonetheless grown wider as modern-day Republicans have veered towards a purist approach to laissez-faire economics that is farther to the right of Reagan. Most Republican members of Congress have signed ideological pledges never to raise taxes, whereas Reagan was amenable to tax increases. Further, certain policies formerly promoted by moderate Republicans, such as the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, are now “socialist” measures that imperil the American Dream, in the eyes of today’s Republicans.
While how to realize the American Dream may seem like an intractable matter of opinion, comparative international studies suggest that strict laissez-faire policies hinder economic mobility. Intergenerational mobility in contemporary America is lower than in multiple developed nations with economic models that are more social-democratic. For instance, studies by the Economic Mobility Project have found that the mobility of children in America is more closely tied to their parents’ achievements, education, and social standing than for children in Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It is also remarkable that, within the United States, economic mobility is lower than average in the South, the region where the conservative values of economic individualism and limited government have the greatest influence.
Modern-day America does not stand out as an equal meritocracy where the impoverished enjoy great opportunities. Rather, it stands out as the developed nation with the utmost wealth inequality. It is not the remote possibility of a poor person realizing the American Dream that makes America exceptional—it is the prevalence of this very belief, especially among Republicans.
Fervent belief in the American Dream is a source of polarization because it provides a justification for immoderate individualism and the acceptance of growing wealth inequality. The conviction that anyone can fulfill the American Dream on his or her own promotes the idea that the distribution of wealth is a mere reflection of people’s talents and labor. Because virtually any hardworking person can supposedly become wealthy in America, the predicament of a poor or struggling middle-class family is probably explainable by laziness and irresponsibility. Despite having enjoyed a life of fabulous wealth and privilege since birth, George W. Bush tellingly assured the public that those “who work hard and make the right decisions can achieve anything they want in America.” From this standpoint, there is no need to redistribute wealth—fairness instead requires that the rich receive generous tax cuts. Similarly, there is no need to assist the millions of Americans lacking adequate medical insurance—it is assumed that they could obtain proper health care themselves if they worked harder. The mythology of the American Dream fosters the notion that wealth inequality is a personal problem, not a systemic one. The strident words of Herman Cain, the populist presidential candidate, epitomize this mindset: “If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!”
Mitt Romney’s worldview has likewise been shaped by faith in the American Dream. The Republican presidential nominee frequently refers to “American exceptionalism,” which he equates with the nation’s innate superiority. The Romney campaign has released a televised advertisement featuring blue-collar workers at Steel Dynamics, a company touted as a successful investment of Bain Capital, Romney’s former company. “American workers in a small town proving that anything is possible in America,” the narrator says, before an employee remarks “if that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is.” Romney has himself suggested that all hardworking Americans could become affluent if the nation adopted his agenda of deregulation, tax cuts focused on the wealthiest citizens, and substantial reductions in government assistance programs. He has further insisted that the high degree of wealth inequality in America is a non- issue or even an illusion promoted by liberals. Interviewed on The Today Show, Romney was asked whether he believes that “anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy or fairness?” Romney gave a categorical answer: “I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.” Indeed, once one accepts the premise that any American could become wealthy with a proper work ethic, one can come to perceive proponents of greater wealth equality as petty-minded loafers or dangerous radicals.
Naturally, hard work can significantly contribute to one’s success. That sensible proposition is distinct from the suggestion that any indigent person could become affluent by simply adopting the right attitude. The case of the working poor belies the common misapprehension that the poor are, by and large, idle welfare recipients. Further, it is not the poor alone who are struggling economically, as the income of the middle-class has stagnated for decades while the bulk of all income growth has gone to the wealthiest citizens.
Belief in the American Dream does not only serve to rationalize inequality, of course. It can also have a positive social influence by inspiring people to show ambition. The prospect of fulfilling the American Dream can be a source of hope for the poor, the immigrant, or the struggling middle- class. Yet, such idealism can hinder pragmatism. According to a 2011 Pew poll, 31 percent of Americans feel that they have already achieved the American Dream and 37 percent think that they will do so someday. Given the limited economic mobility in modern-day America, it is remarkable that merely 27 percent of Americans reckon that they will not reach the American Dream and that only 5 percent are unsure. These findings suggest that people holding pragmatic or realistic attitudes towards the American Dream are significantly outnumbered by those with optimistic and idealistic attitudes.
While the American Dream is more myth than reality nowadays, there indeed was a time when America enjoyed exceptionally high economic mobility. European immigrants were able to greatly improve their lot by moving to America in the 16th to 19th centuries, notably because vast expanses of fertile land were available or seized from Native Americans. However, the unparalleled economic opportunities present in the pre-industrial or early-industrial era became less obvious by the 20th and 21st centuries, when agriculture gradually diminished in importance and the economy grew more complex, which made rising up the social ladder more difficult. Moreover, the comparatively high social mobility in America’s early days was also due to the fact that it lacked the entrenched feudal practices that kept people down in Europe (except for African- Americans who lived under a caste system). But Europe evolved as well, ultimately establishing social democracies that made 20th and 21st century Europe more equal than America in many ways. In other words, the American Dream is an ideal rooted in two anachronisms, on the images of an America and a Europe that no longer exist.
The American Dream has always represented what is possible, not necessarily what is plausible. The staunchest promoters of this ideal in contemporary America feel vindicated by the rare cases of self-made men who rose from rags to riches. They see them as proof that the system works and that social inequality does not really exist, thereby disregarding the economic realities faced by most Americans.
A palpable relationship exists between the enduring utopianism of the American Dream— anyone can become rich without any government assistance—and the utopianism of free-market fundamentalism, which posits that the economy can fairly provide for everyone’s wellbeing without government regulation or stewardship. These interrelated ideologies help the modern- day Republican Party rationalize its hard-line economic program. Ironically, faith in the American Dream reflects profound idealism yet fosters cynicism. The people who most fervently believe in the mythology of the American Dream are particularly unfazed by poverty, acute wealth inequality, the sway of moneyed interests over the political system, and the plight of fellow citizens without adequate medical care. It is an ideal that oftentimes drives the nation further apart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mugambi Jouet is a writer focused on American exceptionalism: what distinguishes America from other Western countries. He is the author of an upcoming book exploring American exceptionalism in various areas, including politics, religion, social issues, economics, and foreign policy. His work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Truthout, Le Monde, and various academic journals. For more of his work visit http://mugambijouet.com.