First, Samuel J. Abrams:
Over the past weeks, I published two articles which argued that the American Dream is not only alive and well for the overwhelming majority of Americans, but that the meaning of the Dream has evolved; it is not about material success, but about individual choice and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.
While many appreciated the optimistic findings, quite a few emails and letters were sent my way questioning the finding that Americans value individualism over financial success. So, I will provide historical context to the Dream that challenges conventional presuppositions along with data from our recent AEI survey to support my claim.
American literature professor Sarah Churchwell, in her new history of the American Dream, argues that, at its conception, the Dream had little to do with wealth but was “a dream of equality, justice, and democracy for the nation.” Churchwell offers that the Dream evolved through successive generations and lost its meaning during the Cold War. She adds that it “became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s. Today, it doesn’t occur to anybody that it could mean anything else.” This materialistic view of the Dream seems to be dominant in public discourse today and is maintained by many such as Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, who recently stated that the Dream was, “the faith that anyone could move from rags to riches — with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone.”
There are, however, broader interpretations of the Dream which promote education, social mobility and the pursuit of opportunity. Moreover, there are interpretations that promote individualism such as that of noted artist Maya Lin who stated that, “To me, the American Dream is being able to follow your own personal calling. To be able to do what you want to do is incredible freedom.” JamesAdams, a writer who coined the term “American Dream”, felt similarly. In 1931, he argued, “the dream, has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”
Our AEI survey intended to unpack the antecedents behind the Dream and did so by presenting a large national sample of Americans with eight distinct factors that could be considered components of the Dream. Participants were asked to rate the importance of each factor in accordance with their personal opinions on the American Dream. Included in the list were choices such as “to become wealthy,” “to have a better quality of life than your parents” as well as “to have a good family life” and “to have freedom of choice in how to live one’s life.”
The aggregate results tell a very strong story: family life and freedom to live one’s life are the highest valued components by far with 83% and 85% of Americans asserting that they are essential to the realization of the Dream. In contrast, only 16% believe that becoming wealthy is essential. Additionally, less than half of participants answered that having a successful career and having a better quality of life than one’s parents are essential to the Dream.
When the survey is broken down by race and ethnicity, freedom of choice in how to live one’s life is the highest rated answer with all groups stating at levels of 80% or more that this factor is fundamental. The least important factor is wealth; 9% of whites and 29% of blacks and Hispanics state that wealth accumulation is critical to the Dream. Further, family and individual choice are the highest rated across all surveyed races and ethnicities. Similarly, when broken down by income, freedom to live one’s life as one chooses is again the most important factor; with a selection rate of 80% for those earning under $35K per year and nearly 90% for those who earn over $100k.
After a thorough examination of the data, it is clear that the public conceptualization of the American Dream stresses individuality and community over material pursuits. This is a non-trivial finding and would explain why data from our AEI survey revealed 82% of Americans believe they are on their way to, or have already achieved the American Dream, while only 18% believe that the Dream is out of reach.
Americans truly value their individualism and their community life, and the post-Cold War conception that achieving the American Dream is inextricably linked to wealth accumulation is erroneous. Americans realize that when they wake up in the morning, they can make choices about how to live and engage with the world; many of these choices do not require bringing wealth into the conversation.
One doesn’t become an adult by graduating from school, or getting a high-paying job, or becoming a parent. Adulthood is really about fulfilling responsibilities. Which brings up, of all things, Star Trek Discovery, in the view of James Aaron Brown:
If Aristotle was correct when he said life imitates art, then “Star Trek: Discovery’s” Captain Christopher Pike is an opportunity for the science fiction genre to reshape the American narrative on masculinity.
Pike inspires his people to “be bold, be brave, be courageous.” In contradiction, sitcom television and college campuses influence Americans to believe that men are solely misogynistic buffoons. In fact, men are so incompetent, they stand over their barbecue grills watching their sons fight with each other as some form of weird ritual. How did we ever reach some sense of civilization over the past 5,000 years with men at the helm?