What Is the American Dream? Do We Need a New One with Covid-19?
Is the American Dream alive and well or has Covid-19 killed it?
Is the American Dream for every American or just for prosperous Americans?
What is the American Dream anyways?
On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and 53 other delegates signed the Declaration of Independence, to proclaim their separation from Great Britain. The Declaration declared: “We hope these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Americans were entitled to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness! Actually, this was the promise to the white propertied class. It was not for slaves, nor even for most women.
The expression, “the American Dream,” did not come into being until 1931. James Thuslow Adams, an American historian, introduced the term and made it the theme of his new book, The Epic of America. He described the American Dream as “a dream of a 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.”
The American Dream expresses what drove so many foreign persons and families to emigrate to America. For Americans, it describes what drove so many Americans living in the East or South to pack up and move West in the wide-open plains and frontier extending all the way to California.
If we asked a random group of Americans to define the American Dream, we would get quite different answers. Here are at least four popular versions of the American Dream:
1. The American Dream is about finding an abundance of freedom and opportunity in America. We know that the Pilgrims left on the Mayflower to be free to practice their religious beliefs and to gain more opportunity than was available in Great Britain.
2. The American Dream is about America providing the chance of going from “rags to riches,” to be a great success in America. Horatio Alger Jr, an American writer (1832–1899), wrote over 100 stories of poor young boys who managed through hope, hard work, and being moral to arrive at a higher station in life as a “self-made” man. Many Americans emphasize the dream of achieving great wealth in America. The Great Gatsby character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name represented the American Dream.
3. The American Dream is about getting a good job, working hard, and earning enough to buy a home and car and support a family with a Middle Class lifestyle. The Middle Class idea provided a good aspirational contrast to the working class lifestyle. Instead of working long and hard hours and barely making enough to buy food and pay rent, with little chance for advancement, persons would be very proud of moving up to the Middle Class lifestyle.
4. The American Dream is about the freedom of every American to pursue his or her individual goals and to succeed to the person’s ability and not to be handicapped by discriminations based on gender, race, age, income, religion or origin. If such hurdles existed, the political and social task was to remove them.
Each of the foregoing views of the American Dream relied on a one-dimensional picture. The American Dream, however, is a much more multi-dimensional view of what makes Brand America so special or great. Ed Burghard, a successful executive in Ohio, decided to commission a sophisticated analysis of the American Dream. He proposed the idea to faculty at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He hoped they would identify the main elements in the American Dream by conducting a statistically valid factor analysis. They could arrive at factors and form an American Dream Composite Index.
The Xavier researchers examined all the literature on the American Dream, applied factor analysis, and identified 35 unique dimensions of the American Dream. They classified the 35 dimensions into five broad categories: Economic, Well-Being, Societal, Diversity, and Environment.
The researchers then used the data to develop the American Dream Composite Index (ADCI). The ADCI takes into account all aspects of American life in its calculation. The ADCI measures the level of the American Dream that people have reached in different American cities and states. Those cities that are significantly higher in the index than the average city contain more people who feel that they have attained the American Dream. Persons unhappy with their present locations could know other locations that might be more fulfilling.
How Have Recent Events Impacted the American Dream?
Americans have experienced new and difficult situations that have affected their optimism or pessimism. Consider the following events:
1. The Rise of China. China is the major foreign power and competitor facing the United States. Since the 1970s, China has experienced a spectacular rise in its economy and technology. China has managed to produce the biggest reduction in the level of poverty of any nation. China’s major cities are dotted with impressive skyscrapers, major luxury stores and brands, and trains that travel nearly 200 miles an hour, and many impressive airports. China has delivered, in effect a new Chinese Dream to its billion people. Very few Americans, however, want to move to China. Its government is a dictatorship and freedom is limited. China does not diminish the American Dream; if anything, it makes the American Dream more appealing.
2. The Digital Revolution. The digital revolution in many ways has expanded the American Dream for so many more people. Americans proudly carry a smart phone and many are looking forward to owning an electric car. Digital companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others have produced new jobs and new millionaires and billionaires, keeping the American Dream alive. At the same time, some Americans are now seeing a potential nightmare in these companies. They have collected so much information about us as individuals and they use this information to manipulate our desires. We are losing our privacy. These huge companies have also damaged small businesses or have taken them over.
3. The Great Recession (2008–2010). The Great Recession deeply damaged so many American lives. Many homeowners with mortgages found that they could not meet their payments when housing prices collapsed. Many Americans went bankrupt or abandoned their homes. They had bought their homes with minimum down payments thinking that housing prices would continue to rise. People lost their jobs. Many students could not afford college and their careers were smashed. Many families broke up as a result of the Great Recession.
4. The Coronavirus Pandemic. This current pandemic has fallen hard on everyone. The U.S. has had over 8 million persons infected and over 200,000 deaths. The Covid-19 recession has led to an 8.4 percent unemployment rate. Essential businesses have continued to operate. However, many discretionary businesses — hotels, restaurants, bars, theatres — carried too much risk to stay open. Companies had to reconfigure their work force, with some employees being furloughed or laid off, others working at home. America recovering to full employment is likely to take a number of years. Most Americans have had their educational and career plans throttled. Dismay and despair is rampant. For many, Covid-19 fatally stabbed the American Dream.
5. The Donald Trump Presidency. The American Dream assumes a society that shares core beliefs about goodwill toward others, honesty, and openness to the world. President Donald Trump, however, operated as a divider, not a unifier. He insulted many leaders and personages, separated immigrant mothers and children in an effort to reduce immigration, and broke many norms of leadership. Instead of making America Great Again, he decimated the dreams and hopes of the majority of Americans in his drive to coddle his 43 percent supporters.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, a 2019 Gallup poll indicated that 70 percent of Americans still believed the American dream is achievable. By working hard and playing by the rules, one can achieve the American Dream.
We do not a similar poll for October 2020. My guess is that the majority of Americans still believe in the American Dream. When people stop believing in the American dream, two changes would happen. Fewer foreign persons would to immigrate to America and more Americans would chose to move abroad to another country.
1. Are there signs that fewer immigrants want to come to America. All the evidence points to millions of foreign persons and families still wanting to move to America. If anything, the Trump administration has done everything possible to limit immigrant inflow. The old idea of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is informally being replaced by “give me your rich and educated…” Many immigrants are motivated not by the American Dream but would be willing to accept menial work just to escape from oppressive and abusive regimes.
2. Are there signs of an increased number of Americans ready to leave America in search of a better life elsewhere? No, there have not been many Americans who are leaving America. However, there are a lot of Americans who are complaining that America today disappoints them. They don’t like the crowdedness of cities, or the corrupt behavior of government leaders, or other disappointments. They think they could lead a better life in Canada, Australia or the Scandinavian countries. Canada is seen very much like a better America with more social caring, better education and better health care. Australia strikes many Americans as offering an easier life with a lot of fun, sport and freedom. They see Sweden, Denmark, and Norway as offering almost free colleges, excellent and affordable health care system, and people who rank higher in happiness, well-being and educational level.
Clearly, the majority of Americans and many people abroad still believe in the American Dream. However, a repaired American Dream is called for! America’s citizens need to review what is missing and prepare to deliver much more widespread opportunity that is promised by the American Dream.
Published in The Sarasota Institute.