The Embattled American Dream

By Hugh Rawson

The candidates in the 2012 American presidential election disagree on many issues, but when you come right down to it, much of the contest revolves around different interpretations of the American dream and what, if anything, the government should do to help people make that dream come true.


Addressing the Democratic national convention in September, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, said that her husband, the President, had a broad, idealistic view of the dream, involving a fuller, more prosperous life for all. “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity,” she said. “He believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it behind you. You reach back, and give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to have a more restrictive, materialistic interpretation of the dream, emphasizing the division between the haves and the have-nots. Speaking to fellow Republicans in November, 2011, Paul Ryan, the party’s future nominee for vice president, asserted that “Seventy percent of Americans want the American dream. They believe in the American idea. Only 30 percent want the welfare state.” (Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president later upped Mr. Ryan’s estimate of those who are “dependent on the government, who believe they are victims,” to 47%.) Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chairman, went on to contend in Politico (Sept. 28, 2012) that “When Obama champions redistribution [of wealth], he abandons the promise of the American dream.”

The tension between the different views of the American dream has existed for many years. James Truslow Adams, who popularized the phrase in his 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Epic of America, employed it in a broad, idealistic sense. In his preface, he characterized it as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.” He also rejected the narrower, materialistic interpretation, concluding in the book’s epilogue that “We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share it.”

Adams was by no means the first person to use the phrase. It cropped up in various contexts in the nineteenth century, usually referring to the nation’s political system rather than to material wealth. Thus, The Galveston (Tex.) Daily News warned on Nov. 9, 1884, four days after that year’s extremely tight presidential election, that if ballots were “sent to Washington to be counted by the Republican officials there . . . that would be the end of the American dream of liberty under representative government.”

Americans also had the dream in mind around the time of World War I. For example, from the Chicago Daily Tribune, of Feb. 6, 1916, more than a year before the United States entered the war: “If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.”

Foreshadowing recent history, the idea that the American dream should be extended to other nations also was raised during this period. Referring to the nation’s last previous war, against Spain in 1898, an editorial writer in the Atlantic (Iowa) News-Telegraph declared in January of 1917: “[Admiral] George Dewey smashing the Spanish fleet was the perfect realization of the American dream of triumphant power.” And looking ahead to U.S. entry into the world war, Mrs. Mary E. T. Chapin, a Bostonian on a lecturing trip in mid-America, said she believed “the United States will be called upon to settle the war in such a way that the American dream of liberty will spread through Europe and ultimately will encircle the world” (The Fort Wayne [Ind.] Journal-Gazette, Mar. 18, 1917).

The American dream began to acquire its more materialistic tinge during the boom years that followed World War II. Typifying this trend, Hal Boyle, writing for the Associated Press, reported on a stroll down New York City’s most famous street in early 1947: “The best way to forget your troubles in Manhattan on Sunday is to go window shopping on Fifth Avenue. They call it the ‘show window of America,’ and it is here the American dream and ‘the better life’ are always on display behind innumerable panes of glass and neat price tags.”

The dream came to embody home ownership in particular. Thus, a classified ad in a Texas newspaper in 2000 proclaimed: “AMERICAN DREAM COME TRUE!! Land/Home Financing with Low Down Payment and Low Interest.” The downside was that people piled up large amounts of debt and became vulnerable when the economy turned sour. “The American dream is on life support because men and women by the millions . . . are unable to find a decent job,” observed New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in March of 2008. And a front-page story in the Times on May 31, 2011, began: “The desire to own your own home, long a bedrock of the American Dream, is fast becoming a casualty of the worst housing downturn since the Great Depression.”

The dream’s idealistic strain lives on, of course. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked it memorably in his address to some 200,000 civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963. “I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream rooted deeply in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold this truth to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” And today, President Obama, as his wife pointed out, thinks of the American dream as a goal to be realized by every citizen. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, carries the subtitle, Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. His economic plan during his campaign for the presidency was billed as “Barack Obama’s Plan to Reclaim the American Dream,” and his victory in the election of 2008 was hailed widely as “the realization of the American dream.”

So the battle for ownership of the American dream continues. The ultraconservative Heritage Foundation issued a fact sheet in 2009, headed “Tea Party Talking Points: Obama’s War on the American Dream.” The Foundation’s dream was for smaller government, without redistribution of the wealth, “Tea” being an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.” And this past September, one of Forbes magazine’s “wealth editors” declared that analysis of the magazine’s list of the four hundred wealthiest people in the country “instills confidence that the American dream is still very much alive.” But the “poorest” person on this list had a net worth of about $1.1 billion, an amount that other Americans can only dream about, whether they are in Mr. Ryan’s 30 percent, Mr. Romney’s 47 percent, or the 99 percent represented by the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Who wins the battle will be determined when votes are counted on November 6 but the war, no doubt, will continue.

2 thoughts on “The Embattled American Dream

  1. Delfin Carbonell

    Somehow I thought the American Dream had to do with equal opportunity, free will and choice rather than a chicken in every pot and cars in garages. The Dream is about possibilities. The possibility that the son of a working-class man could become a college professor or a black president of the country.
    But perhaps I got it wrong some 60 years ago, before either Obama or Romney were born.

  2. No, you didn’t get it wrong. You are outlining the classic Jeffersonian dream. But his vision pre-dates McMansions, two-car garages, hot tubs, and home entertainment centers!

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