Define the American Dream. Is it that three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home in the suburbs? As our politicians talk about the current financial morass, they’d have you believe that. Change the channel, and still another politician or pundit will tell you of an American Dream where all children are covered by healthcare and where getting sick doesn’t carry the nuance of possible financial ruin. Change the channel again and you’ll get another remix talking about how we need to reclaim the glory of years past.
But they’re wrong. All of them. The “American” in American Dream isn’t possessive, it’s purely adjectival. The American Dream is the dream of opportunity, nothing more and nothing less. It is a dream shared of course by many Americans, but also with dreamers across the whole world. A tailor in Calcutta bending over his cloth, a rice farmer in Vietnam working in his field, a shopkeeper in China tallying the day’s sales, or a carpenter in Mexico framing a house have the same dream. It is the idea that if you obey the rules, work hard, and try to be a good member of society, you will be rewarded with success, and, yes, maybe that house in the suburbs. It is a dream that has perhaps best been realized in America, but it is owned by the world.
We must be careful, however, not to tie the American Dream to only material things. It is about potential. It is about getting back from the world what you put into it, and also about giving back to the world when you get a bit luckier than the person down the street, the next city over, or across the border. The American Dream, in the adjectival sense, is simply aspirational. It captures the very human desire to better ourselves and to build a better world for our children. America, for all its problems and follies, is in many ways the best we as a species have been able to achieve. The world knows this. It’s why we are admired, despised, hated, and loved. We are – or at least could be – anything to anyone.
And that’s where things get sticky. Aspirational dreams can become nightmarish quagmires when we continually struggle towards them without seeming to get closer to the goal. Tied too closely to material success, the American Dream transforms into a horrible race of keeping up with the Joneses. To prevent this, the focus must be on the dream, and the dream must change as the people dreaming it change. Americans who ask “What happened to the American Dream?” don’t get it. They don’t understand that you can’t look backward for the American Dream because it is inherently a forward looking construct. They don’t get that while they may be actors in the Dream, the Dream is not only dreamt in America. They don’t get that the Dream never ends, and that every generation has necessarily different aspirations. Without that, the value of the Dream disappears and we fall back into the trap of trying to buy our way to the next level of happiness.
For much of the late 1990s and into the new millennium the Dream became less attractive. The world changed and much of America did not. Sure, parts did. Silicon Valley innovated with a speed not seen since the Renaissance, and Wall Street brought in quants and used some of that technology to launch a revolution in the markets. Capitalism won the day, but somewhere along the way we lost sight of the nonmaterial things we were losing. We gave up on the idea of a greater good, and when we did that we gave up a part of our collective soul. Unfortunately, the part we lost was the part that dreams.
America is going to survive the current financial, structural, and social schisms that now threaten to overtake our lives. To achieve this, however, we need to stop the multitude of delusions that afflict us. We need to realize that the American Dream is only that, a Dream. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we could pay for things today with money borrowed from tomorrow, and that somehow the Dream would make things work out all right. It didn’t and it won’t, because it can’t.
We need to reflect on what made America great. It wasn’t people of a certain nationality or skin color, it wasn’t members of a particular religion, and it certainly was not because the system of government America offered was radically different than other places. What made America great was that the people who came here were willing to work hard, they were willing to persevere in the face of adversity, and they were willing to learn to live within a new system, a new society, and a new culture. They were willing to do all this because at the time the potential and opportunity in America were outstanding, and they wanted a shot at building a better life. They were the original Dreamers, and it is from them that the Dream spread and became what it is now.
Today, America still has its Dreamers. The immigrants of today may not look like or speak the same languages of the original Dreamers, but they and their children share the drive and hunger of those original Dreamers all the same. Now, however, America also has a huge number of people who were born here, grew up here, and who have lived the Dream. Only some of them don’t think so. They look at their home, their car, and their TV, and they wonder why all of them aren’t bigger or newer. They look back on the gains their parents made, and they feel that they should have more. They feel as if the system somehow shorted them on what they were due. They’ve bought into at least the material side of the Dream, but they’ve forgotten that the Dream isn’t a promise. The Dream only shows what’s possible, and those possibilities constantly change. None of us can reclaim the American Dream of our forefathers because it doesn’t exist any longer.
In two weeks we will go through another election cycle, one that promises to be a milestone in American history. Americans on both sides of the aisle are aghast at the financial situation the US has found itself in after years of spending without reason or reward. It is our challenge as US citizens at this time to find the political will to know we have some hard times coming, to accept that fact, and to make the cuts and raise the taxes necessary to balance the books. It is our challenge as Americans to prove Marx wrong and show that Capitalism is not inherently corrupting, and that it is possible to better a society through progressive social reform while still maintaining the efficiency and drive of a capitalist system. It is our challenge as Dreamers to take it upon ourselves to fix things now so that our children have a better world in which to live in the future.
It’s time for America to reset. Two years ago we took a first step in this direction by electing a President who spoke of hope, of possibilities, and who evoked another era and man who also spoke of dreams. Whether you are conservative or liberal, the importance of President Obama’s arrival in the White House showed clearly that the United States was reevaluating itself, what it was, and what it wanted to be. The world cheered at those elections because the world had already dreamt them, and we showed the Dream to still be alive and true. But the Dream moves on and the world moves on. The economic potential and opportunity in America is being challenged by China, Brazil, and other models. The countries of Europe have changed radically in the past 30 years and now in several cases outpace the US both in economic growth and socioeconomic stability. The Dreamers don’t just dream of America any longer. They have options that previous generations didn’t have; they can seek their Dream elsewhere.
It is inevitable that the time will come when America is not the largest economic power on earth. We do not, however, have to lose our role as a leader. It is critical, in fact, for America to maintain it, but we need to do so not by force of will or force of arms. We need to do it by force of spirit. We need to recapture the indomitable spirit of the pioneer, of the bold face willing to try new things and forge a new way. Most importantly, we need to remember that the Dream will forever be changing and that the ability to adapt always beats the desire to hold on to the status quo.
So, go and vote. Make your voice heard. But before you do so, think about the American Dream and what it really is, a global referendum on the United States and what it stands for. Right now it’s still the American Dream, but remember, “American” is an adjective and that adjective can and will change unless we provide leadership. The world doesn’t just want our military to act as a global police force or for our economy to power the world out of yet another economic downturn. It wants something much greater, something much more human.
It wants us to dream back.