What is the American Dream?

Dream Home

Is it about raising living standard for everyone?  Or is it based on “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement?”

Over at Smart Set, Michael Lind examines the differences between these two visions of the American Dream and situates them in some historical context.

Here is a taste:

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last quarter century, the definition of the American Dream in terms of ever-rising living standards for all workers has been replaced by the rival definition of the American Dream in terms of meritocracy.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.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “What is the American Dream?

  1. Very good excerpt in its own right. It also once again underlines that the two competing versions of the American [sic–should be “United States”] dream are both self-seeking and materialistic, having nothing to do with a dream of a loving and holy Christian commonwealth. This country has always worshipped Mammon (and Mars, in order to get Mammon), more so than the Holy Trinity, and far from abandoning the worship of those idols, we have now added a third, Venus, to make it an unholy trinity. How terribly mistaken people are to think this country was ever Christian (although we may thank God that is has always and a righteous remnant.


Comments are closed.