The State of the American Dream –
Keeping the American Dream Alive A Conversation with former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan From a Vietnamese Orphanage to a Life of Service in America A Conversation with Kimberly Mitchell, Bush Institute Veteran Leadership Program Participant Surviving or Thriving? What It Takes for Immigrants to Succeed An Essay by Farhat Popal, Immigrant Affairs Manager for the City of San Diego The American Dream is Also About Generosity and Respect An Essay by Joseph Kim, North Korean Refugee and Expert in Residence in the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute Unfinished Dreams: A Family’s Hardships in America An Essay by Julissa Arce, Author of My (Underground) American Dream and Co-founder of the Ascend Educational Fund The Evolution of the Idea An Essay by J.H. Cullum Clark, Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative The Values of Hard Work and Servant Leadership A Conversation with USAF Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers (Ret.) The Resilience of Immigrants is Rebuilding America An Essay by Rebecca Shi, Executive Director of the American Business Immigration Coalition Transforming Lives and Creating Opportunity for At-Risk Youth A Conversation with Chad Houser, Founder, CEO, and Executive Chef at Café Momentum The State of the American Dream Editor’s Note by Brittney Bain, Editor of The Catalyst Building Opportunity for Generations An Essay by Andrew Kaufmann, Deputy Director of External Affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center A Brief History of the American Dream An Essay by Sarah Churchwell, Professor at the University of London, and Author, Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’ Grit and Community are Key to Reaching Full Potential An Essay by Dionne Gumbs, CEO and Founder of GenEQTY and 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholar
Copyright 2022 George W. Bush Presidential Center. All Rights Reserved. An Essay by Sarah Churchwell, Professor at the University of London, and Author, Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’ Over time, the phrase “American dream” has come to be associated with upward mobility and enough economic success to lead a comfortable life. Historically, however, the phrase represented the idealism of the great American experiment. If you ask most people around the world what they mean by the “American dream,” nearly all will respond with some version of upward social mobility, the American success story, or the self-made man (rarely the self-made woman). Perhaps they will invoke the symbolic house with a white picket fence that suggests economic self-sufficiency and security; many will associate the phrase with the land of opportunity for immigrants.
No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines the American dream as “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” If success and prosperity are the American dream, however, it’s hard to understand why it was under assault by a mob of insurrectionists at the Capitol in January — but that is precisely what international commentators concluded.
From Iran to Australia to Britain, global observers construed the Capitol riot as an assault on “the American dream,” although it was not a mob driven by economic grievance, but rather an explicitly political assault on the democratic process. No matter how often we talk about the American dream as a socioeconomic promise of material success, the truth is that most people — even people around the world — understand instinctively that the American dream is also a sociopolitical one, meaning something more profound and aspirational than simple material comfort.
And indeed, that’s what the phrase denoted to the Americans who first popularized it. In 1931 a historian named James Truslow Adams set out to make sense of the crisis of the Great Depression, which in 1931 was both an economic crisis and a looming political crisis. Authoritarianism in Europe was on the rise, and many Americans were concerned that similar “despotic” energies would support the fabled “man on horseback” who might become an American tyrant.
Adams concluded that America had lost its way by prizing material success above all other values: Indeed, it had started to treat money as a value, instead of merely as a means to produce or measure value. Adams concluded that America had lost its way by prizing material success above all other values: Indeed, it had started to treat money as a value, instead of merely as a means to produce or measure value.
For Adams, worshipping material success was not the definition of the American dream: It was, by contrast, the failure of “the American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Adams did not mean “richer” materially, but spiritually; he distinguished the American dream from dreams of prosperity.
It was, he declared, “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” That repudiation is crucial, but almost always overlooked when this famous passage is quoted.
Adams specifically gainsays the idea that the American dream is of material success. The American dream, according to Adams, was about collective moral character: It was a vision of “commonweal,” common well-being, well-being that is held in common and therefore mutually supported. It was, as Adams said, a “dream of social order,” in which every citizen could attain the best of which they were capable.
And it was that dream of social order that was so conspicuously under assault on January 6 th, It was the same American dream that Martin Luther King Jr. would call to service in the civil rights struggle in 1963, when he told white America that Black Americans shared that dream: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Rowland Scherman / National Archives and Records Administration) I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The idea of an American creed, now all but forgotten, was once a staple of American political discourse, a broad belief system comprising liberty, democratic equality, social justice, economic opportunity, and individual advancement. Before 1945, when it was replaced by the Pledge of Allegiance, the creed was recited by most American schoolchildren — including, presumably, a young Martin Luther King Jr.: I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic and a sovereign nation of many sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
- It was in that creed that the phrase the American dream was first used to articulate — not in 1931, when it was popularized, but when it first appeared in American political discourse, at the turn of the 20 th century.
- The American dream was rarely, if ever, used to describe the familiar idea of Horatio Alger individual upward social mobility until after the Second World War.
Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1899, a Vermont doctor made the news when he built a house with 60 rooms on 4,000 acres, which was described as “the largest country place in America” at the time. It came as a shock to readers, and struck many of them as an “utterly un-American dream” in its inequality: “Until a few years ago the thought of such an estate as that would have seemed a wild and utterly un-American dream to any Vermonter,” one article commented.
- It was a state of almost ideally democratic equality, where everybody worked and nobody went hungry.” We don’t have to accept that Vermont was ever a utopian ideal to recognize that the comment overturns our received wisdoms about the American dream.
- Today, such an estate would seem the epitome of the American dream to most Americans.
The American dream was rarely, if ever, used to describe the familiar idea of “Horatio Alger” individual upward social mobility until after the Second World War. Horatio Algur’s “Ragged Dick,” the story of a shoeshine boy who rises to the middle class, was serialized in Student and Schoolmate in 1867. In 1900, the New York Post warned its readers that the “greatest risk” to “every republic” was not from the so-called rabble, but “discontented multimillionaires.” All previous republics, it noted, had been “overthrown by rich men” and this could happen too in America, where monopoly capitalists were “deriding the Constitution, unrebuked by the executive or by public opinion.” If they had their way “it would be the end of the American dream,” because the American dream was of democracy — of equality of opportunity, of justice for all.
- Again, today most Americans would clearly say that becoming a multimillionaire defines the American dream, but the fact is that the expression emerged to criticize, not endorse, the amassing of great personal wealth.
- Although many now assume that the phrase American dream was first used to describe 19 th century immigrants’ archetypal dreams of finding a land where the streets were paved with gold, not until 1918 have I found any instance of the “American dream” being used to describe the immigrant experience — the same year that the language of the “American creed” was first published.
There were only a few passing mentions of the idea of an American dream before Adams popularized it in 1931, most notably in Walter Lippmann’s 1914 Drift and Mastery, which described what Lippmann called America’s “fear economy” of unbridled capitalism.
Lippmann argued that the nation’s “dream of endless progress” would need to be restrained, because it was fundamentally illusory: “It opens a chasm between fact and fancy, and the whole fine dream is detached from the living zone of the present.” This dream of endless progress was indistinguishable, Lippmann wrote, “from those who dream of a glorious past.” Both dreams were equally illusory.
For Lippmann, the American dream was the idea that the common man is inherently good and a moral barometer of the nation, the belief that “if only you let men alone, they’ll be good.” For Lippmann, the American dream was a delusion not because upward social mobility was a myth, but because undisciplined goodness is: The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable.
The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense.
A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.
- The American faith in the individual taken to its inevitable extreme creates the monstrosity of a self with no consciousness of other standards or perspectives, let alone a sense of principle.
- James Truslow Adams ended The Epic of America with what he said was the perfect symbol of the American dream in action.
It was not the example of an immigrant who made good, a self-made man who bootstrapped his way from poverty to power, or the iconic house with a white picket fence. For Adams, the American dream was embodied in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress. The Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress. It was a room that the nation had gifted to itself, so that every American — “old and young, rich and poor, Black and white, the executive and the laborer, the general and the private, the noted scholar and the schoolboy” — could sit together, “reading at their own library provided by their own democracy.
It has always seemed to me,” Adams continued, to be a perfect working out in a concrete example of the American dream — the means provided by the accumulated resources of the people themselves, a public intelligent enough to use them, and men of high distinction, themselves a part of the great democracy, devoting themselves to the good of the whole, uncloistered.
It is an image of peaceful, collective, enlightened self-improvement. That is the American dream, according to the man who bequeathed us the phrase. It is an image that takes for granted the value of education, of shared knowledge and curiosity, of historical inquiry and a commitment to the good of the whole.
- It is an image of peaceful, collective, enlightened self-improvement.
- That is the American dream, according to the man who bequeathed us the phrase.
- That depiction of a group of Americans serenely reading together on Capitol Hill serves as a deeply painful corrective for the nation we have become, filled with people who put political partisanship above country, above democracy, above any principle of civic good or collective well-being.
Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Adams was neither naïve nor especially sentimental about the America he was viewing in 1931. His reflections on the Library of Congress as the American dream led him to conclude that its fundamental purpose was to keep democracy alive: No ruling class has ever willingly abdicated.
Democracy can never be saved, and would not be worth saving, unless it can save itself. The Library of Congress, however, has come straight from the heart of democracy, as it has been taken to it, and I here use it as a symbol of what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf. That is the American dream: what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf for its citizens.
The first voices to speak of the “American dream” used it not as a promise, or a guarantee, but as an exhortation, urging all Americans to do better, to be fairer, to combat bigotry and inequality, to keep striving for a republic of equals. That is the American dream we need to revive: the dream of a social order defined by the American creed, a belief in the United States of America as a government whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic. Sarah Churchwell Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and the author of Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “the American Dream”
- 1 What does the American Dream mean to society?
- 2 Does the American dream mean the same thing to everyone?
- 3 What does the American Dream mean today?
- 4 Why is America called a dream country?
- 5 In what ways does the American Dream mean different things for different Americans?
- 6 What is the American Dream the history that made it possible?
- 7 How has the meaning of the American Dream changed?
What does the American Dream mean to society?
What Is the American Dream? – The American dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American dream is believed to be achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.
Does the American dream mean the same thing to everyone?
‘Untethered’ millennials are pursuing their passions – In addition to,, and debt, those who said they believe in the American Dream were given five other components to choose from (they were able select more than one response): pursuing a passion, having children, getting married, making it on your own, and owning a car.
Millennials broke away from the mold, perhaps unsurprisingly, by adding a strong fourth element to their definition of the American Dream. Right behind retiring comfortably, 47% of millennials view pursuing their passion as a key component. This is quite the contrast from Gen X and baby boomers, of which only 29% and 27%, respectively, considered pursuing your passion a factor, making it the least popular of all options presented to them.
“With 60% of millennials feeling untethered and not stuck in one place, they believe they have time to pursue passions, such as a trying out new professions or exploring a new city, rather than feeling pressure to settle down like their older counterparts may be experiencing (or have experienced already),” Bailey said, adding that they still haven’t taken their eye off more traditional components of the American Dream.
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: People of all ages define the American Dream the same way — but millennials take it one step further
What does the American Dream mean today?
The State of the American Dream The American dream in 2021 is complicated. For some, the idea still harkens back to our country’s founding. A belief that America provides a better life, even today, and that freedoms in our country afford anyone the opportunity to succeed. For others, the concept is a fantasy.
- The realities of inequality, income mobility, the pandemic, and a broken immigration system send clear wake-up calls that the dream cannot be reached by everyone.
- This issue of The Catalyst attempts to examine just what the American dream means today.
- We present voices across the board, from immigrants and their children, to Americans who have risen above their own challenges, to thought leaders who look at the history of the idea, the economy, and immigration reform.
It’s not an easy conversation but an important and often inspiring one. The essays are realistic about the challenges we face, but there is also optimism about the future of our country. Perhaps most importantly, we are reminded that despite our disagreements, we tend to have more in common than we realize.
Why is America called a dream country?
Historical Ambitions – The notion of the American dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, If all men are created equal with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then America is the nation for dreamers and optimists. There was a clear ambition that citizens of the United States could point to everytime they tried to achieve something.
- For many citizens, including women and people of color, the dream was not enshrined in the same way.
- It has taken years of struggle and courage from the disadvantaged to be able to have the same dreams and the same opportunities as the rest of the U.S.
- And, obviously, the situation is not perfect, even now after years of amendments, civil rights movements and leaps of progress.
But every generation gets closer. What was the American dream for early immigrants? Many moved to the United States in search of a better life. They moved to the U.S. because of the promise of opportunity. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants from all over the world.
What are some examples of the American Dream?
The American Dream was a term first coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book Epic of America, It was a phrase that encapsulated a concept which many Americans since the pioneers have aspired to achieve. Some examples of the American Dream include social mobility, the opportunity to start a family or business, and access to education.
What obstacles do people face as they pursue the American Dream?
Fear, money and education/training, families changing in size, disability, race and gender, are some of the hurdles that many Americans face as they try to achieve the typical American Dream. One obstacle that would be a barrier to helping achieve the American Dream would be fear.
What defines an American?
|Flag of the United States|
|c. 331.4 million ( 2020 U.S. census )|
|Regions with significant populations|
|American diaspora : c. 2.996 million (by U.S. citizenship )|
|American English, Spanish, Native American languages and various others|
|Majority: Christianity ( Protestantism, Catholicism, and other denominations ) Minority: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various others|
Americans are the citizens and nationals of the United States of America, Although direct citizens and nationals make up the majority of Americans, many dual citizens, expatriates, and permanent residents could also legally claim American nationality.
In what ways does the American Dream mean different things for different Americans?
The American Dream to one person can mean money, cars,or fame. While to someone else it can mean the simpler things in life like just pure happiness. The American Dream to someone who grew up with numerous siblings can mean peace and quiet. For an only child, it can mean to never be lonely.
How do you achieve the American Dream today?
Finding Your Passion – The American dream today includes pursuing something you are passionate about, making money doing it, and living your life the way you want to live it. Obviously, work is a part of life, and finding something that you are passionate about and pursuing it makes your dream come true.
What is the American Dream the history that made it possible?
The beginnings of the idea of the American Dream can be traced to the Founding Fathers, who declared their independence from England because of their belief in unalienable rights. Those men believed people inherently possessed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What are two current elements of the American Dream?
What are the 5 elements of the American dream? – The 5 elements of the American Dream are based on the American ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality. All five elements contribute to a person’s equal access to success.
How has the meaning of the American Dream changed?
Today – What does the American Dream look like now? It’s a lot more complicated. Modern technology juxtaposed with the fall of the housing market has made the American Dream more convoluted. Miguel Suro, a licensed attorney in Florida and a personal finance blogger, says the American Dream has changed in two main ways over time: it’s harder to achieve, and the goals are different.
The main culprit here seems to be technology and the round-the-clock work culture it has created,” Suro says. “To have a similar quality of life (to the one their parents had), most young professionals nowadays (or at least those we know) have to be “on call” into the night and on weekends, and must very frequently work overtime.” Alvin Garcia, a marketing apprentice at Fueled, says the dream has shifted to a focus on innovation, inclusion, and opportunity.
“Silicon Valley is a great representation of the current American Dream,” Garcia says. “This dream aspires to solve complex problems with technology rather than use technology to keep things moving like back in the industrial age.” 8 / 8 99Art/Shutterstock