Which American Dream?

A clash of visions

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Many across the political spectrum assert that the American Dream is endangered. No American politician would dare to question that the American Dream must be preserved. But what exactly is the American Dream?

In his 1931 book The Epic of America, the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term, defining the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” In the two clauses of his sentence, Adams combines two different, and not necessarily compatible definitions of the American Dream.

The first is the idea of the American Dream as constantly raising living standards for everyone: “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone” — talented or talentless.

The second formulation of the American Dream is based on “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Nowadays this is called “meritocracy,” a term coined by the sociologist Michael Young (who ridiculed what he considered to be a dystopian social ideal).

These two versions of the American Dream — a rising standard of living for all versus the ability of the talented and hardworking to excel — are obviously in tension. The living-standard version makes every American a potential winner. If living standards rise for all over time, they will rise for mediocrities as well as geniuses, for the incompetent as well as the capable. In contrast, if the American Dream means merely an opportunity to succeed on the basis of ability, then those of lesser ability — the vast majority of Americans — may be doomed to fall even further behind a minority of high achievers.

Yoked together in Adams’s summary of the American Dream, the two concepts have often existed apart. Since the founding of the U.S., most Americans have thought of the American Dream in terms of high and rising living standards, particularly in comparison with those in the countries from which they or their ancestors emigrated.

In “Letters from an American Farmer,” published in 1782, the French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote:

What, then, is an American, this new man? . . . Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor; this labor is founded on the basis of self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded a morsel of bread, now fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields, whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed them all; without any part being claimed either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord . . . From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to toils of a very different nature rewarded by ample subsistence.

Writing before the industrial revolution took off, Crevecoeur did not imagine a future of rising prosperity based on machine technology. The family farmer in the U.S. was better off than the peasant farmer in Europe, not because the technology was different, but because the American farmer did not have to pay rents to “a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord.” This was a decidedly materialistic view of what later was called the American Dream, with “exuberant corps” and “fat and frolicsome” wives and children.

By the 20th century, the idea that economic growth over time would raise living standards for all became a familiar and popular idea. In the new industrial economy, unlike in the zero-sum pre-industrial agrarian economy, the rewards to workers, managers, and investors could all grow together thanks to technological progress.

In his 1909 book The Promise of American Life, the progressive journalist Herbert Croly acknowledged the material dimension:

The Promise, which bulks so large in their patriotic outlook, is a promise of comfort and prosperity for an ever increasing majority of good Americans…. The general belief still is that Americans are not destined to renounce, but to enjoy.

In the last quarter century, the definition of the American Dream in terms of ever-rising living standards for all workers has been replaced by the rival definition of the American Dream in terms of meritocracy. This change came about chiefly as the result of the expansion of Americans with a B.A. or greater. This “mass upper middle class” is only about 30 percent of the population, but almost all politicians, professors, and pundits are drawn from its ranks. Owing their positions in particular organizations to their aptitude on academic tests and their acquisition of credentials for the most part, the members of the meritocratic elite naturally think of the American Dream as a society in which everyone is a college-educated careerist.

The identification of the American Dream with meritocracy is relatively new. The idea of ever-rising living standards for all was the dominant conception of the American Dream until the 1980s — and it may well remain the dominant conception among America’s working-class majority. The American Dream did not mean that the children of factory workers and clerical workers would have the chance to go to college to become better-paid professionals. It meant that even if the children followed the same line of work as their parents, they would be paid higher wages for fewer hours of work and would be able to afford bigger houses and more consumer goods. The American Dream was not about moving up from one class to a higher class, but about constantly rising living standards for all social classes in a technological economy.

Which of the two versions of the American Dream should we prefer? The meritocratic version of the American Dream is flawed in a way that the living-standards version is not.

Most Americans of all classes can get radios in one generation, televisions in the next, and PCs and iPhones in the next. But only a few can realize “opportunity for ability or achievement,” given the winner-take-all nature of most competitive fields. Most aspiring athletes, ballet dancers, novelists, and inventors will fail to achieve their ambitions.

In theory, every American could graduate from college. But that would devalue the worth of all college degrees except for those of a few selective institutions which would reject even more applicants than they do now.

It is downright dangerous to identify the American Dream with intergenerational mobility, with progress defined as the children of janitors and store clerks becoming lawyers or doctors or professors. The number of job openings for vocations that require little or no training beyond high school will continue to exceed job openings in elite professions. It would be a social disaster if many janitors and store clerks are overqualified for the work they do and resentful of the society that promised too few high-status jobs to too many ambitious citizens.

A nation in which most citizens are told that they can achieve anything they want and that if they fail to do so the fault is purely their own, will be a society with a majority of embittered failures. In contrast, one in which the standard of living goes up constantly over time, for the less educated and less able as well as the highly educated and talented, is likely to be a happier nation. •

Feature image courtesy of Shannon Sands.

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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