The American Dream, Redefined

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua is a valuable, challenging book. The American Dream, however, is more complicated than Chua acknowledges.

Chua affirms a self-critical American Dream “that recognizes past failure.” She also rightly criticizes those who reduce America to “a nation founded on genocide and on the backs of slaves.” She writes:

In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism…[which] creates a virtuous Us and a demonized Them.

Her point is well-taken. Progressives often express a holier-than-thou attitude toward typical Americans and do not adopt a balanced stance toward America’s strengths and weaknesses.

Chua’s less judgmental perspective declares that “generations seeking justice have done so for the promise of America….  [which] allows — indeed, gains strength from allowing — all those subgroup identities to flourish…. “ She proposes strengthening America’s identity as the only nation that is not based on ethnicity, but rather is an inclusive “super-group” with everyone “united by their common humanity and love of liberty.” She believes:

It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings; we need to view one another as fellow Americans. And for that we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts…. What holds the United States together is the American Dream.

But her definition of the American Dream is mistakenly rooted in the pursuit of great wealth. She says:

America’s have-nots don’t have wealth — many of them want it, or want their children to have a shot at it, even if they think the system is “rigged” against them. Whether black, white, or Latino, poor and working-class Americans hunger for the old-fashioned American Dream….

The original dream, however, merely affirmed the gradual accumulation of modest wealth. Freelance writer James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase “American Dream” in his Epic of America which defined the term as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” If the American Dream were limited to that “land of opportunity,” hardly anyone would object.

Later, however, the discovery of gold triggered the dream of instant wealth, which became a key feature of the American mind. The advent of mass advertising and the introduction of television aggravated hyper-competitive consumerism, materialism, cheating, corruption, and selfishness.

The desire for comfort and security evolved into a passion for obscene wealth. “To keep up with the Jones’” became “to get ahead” — by any means necessary. The mantra “greed is good” became widely accepted. To climb social ladders and look down on those below became society’s driving force. Television programs like the top-rated “Survivor” — where contestants progressively eliminate other contestants until one wins the million-dollar prize — symbolize this competitive consumerism. In sports, “It’s not whether you win or lose that counts but how you play the game” became “winning is everything.”

Richard Easterlin and Eileen M Crimmins found that from 1970 to 1987 the percentage of college freshmen who aimed to be very well off financially increased from 37% to 75%, while the percentage who aimed to develop a meaningful philosophy of life decreased from 65% to 37% during a similar time period.

The American Dream is now based on the belief that every child faces few barriers and has a good chance to rise from humble origins to enormous wealth. Americans discount the advantages and disadvantages inherited at birth and neglect the importance of luck, cheating, and extreme selfish ambition. Unlike Europeans, most Americans do not acknowledge that forces beyond personal control greatly influence success. Rather, they believe people are almost always rewarded for hard work and skill — and they themselves feel shame if they are not.

But throughout our history, most Americans have never risen far above their parents’ status. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg documents how “upward mobility” has always been a myth. Worse yet, Isenberg reports that the American Dream has been based on assumptions of moral superiority.

In the British colonies, John Winthrop, a seventeenth-century leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, summed up a basic principle for his newly forming community when he declared, “God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in subjection.”

Later, John Adams, the second President of the United States, reinforced that point when he affirmed the “passion for distinction in the ranks and the order of society” and declared, “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” Or, as the Tibetan Buddhist saying put it: “Envy toward the above, competitiveness toward the equal, and contempt toward the lower.”

Isenberg believes the myth of upward mobility affects who we are and how “we judge people by the way they’re dressed, by the way they talk, by the unwritten codes of class behavior.” Contempt toward those who are lower on the ladder of success, envy and resentment toward those who are higher, shame for “failing,” and fear of those deemed a threat are widespread.

The result is fragmenting social discord, a dilemma neglected by Chua. These tensions undermine the unity she seeks. As summed up by, “Healthy levels of competition can help improve self-esteem and increase enjoyment of life.” However, obsessive competition (which has become more common) “may lead to perfectionism, chronic feelings of inadequacy, or mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.”

In the 1960s, the counterculture rejected the dehumanizing version of the American Dream and its “corporate technostructure … that reduced everyday life to a hamster cage of earning and spending,” as Jackson Lears expressed it. Chua would have done well to pay more attention to that critique.

The American Dream has included four beliefs: 1) equal opportunity; 2) the ability to advance; 3) a passion to get very rich, and; 4) assumptions of moral superiority. A productive redefinition of the American Dream would affirm the first two and set aside the others. A healthy dream would avoid obsession with great wealth and moralistic judgments toward those who are less “successful.”

Establishing economic security for all could help assure an equal opportunity to a good life, enable those who want to do so to gain more income, and enable many Americans to choose a simple lifestyle that leaves time for meaningful activities that do not generate income.

Then, the American Dream could better serve humanity, the environment, and life itself.

NOTE: Excerpts from Political Tribes are posted here.

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