I want to think aloud about the American dream. People have been saying for a while that it’s dead. It’s not, but it needs strengthening. We should start by saying what it means, which is something we’ve gotten mixed up about. I know its definition because I grew up in the heart of it and remember how people had long understood it. The American dream is the belief, held by generation after generation since our beginning and reanimated over the decades by waves of immigrants, that here you can start from anywhere and become anything. In America you can rise to the heights no matter where and in what circumstances you began. You can go from the bottom to the top.
Behind the dream was another belief: America was uniquely free, egalitarian and arranged so as to welcome talent. Lincoln was elected president in part because his supporters brought lengths of crude split-rails to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860. They held the rails high and paraded them in a floor demonstration to tell everyone: This guy was nothing but a frontier rail splitter, a laborer, a backwoods nobody. Now he will be president. What a country. What a dream.
This distinguished America from old Europe, from which it had kicked away. There titles, families and inherited wealth dictated standing: If you had them, you’d always be at the top. If you didn’t, you’d always be at the bottom. That static system bred resentment. We would have a dynamic one that bred hope.
You can give a dozen examples, and perhaps you are one, of Americans who turned a brilliant system into a lived-out triumph. Thomas Edison, the seventh child of modest folk in Michigan and half-deaf to boot, filled the greatest cities in the world with electric light. Barbara Stanwyck was from working-class Brooklyn. Her mother died, her father skipped town, and she was raised by relatives and foster parents. She went on to a half-century career as a magnetic actress of stage and screen; in 1944 she was the highest-paid woman in America. Jonas Salk was a hero of my childhood. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in East Harlem—again, working-class nobodies. Naturally young Jonas, an American, scoped out the true facts of his time and place and thought: I’ll be a great lawyer. His mother is reported to have said no, a doctor. He went on to cure polio. We used to talk about him at the public school when we waited in line for the vaccine.
In America so many paths were offered! But then a big nation that is a great one literally has a lot of paths.
The American dream was about aspiration and the possibility that, with dedication and focus, it could be fulfilled. But the American dream was not about material things—houses, cars, a guarantee of future increase. That’s the construction we put on it now. It’s wrong. A big house could be the product of the dream, if that’s what you wanted, but the house itself was not the dream. You could, acting on your vision of the dream, read, learn, hold a modest job and rent a home, but at town council meetings you could stand, lead with wisdom and knowledge, and become a figure of local respect. Maybe the respect was your dream.
Stanwyck became rich, Salk revered. Both realized the dream.
How did we get the definition mixed up?
I think part of the answer is: Grandpa. He’d sit on the front stoop in Levittown in the 1950s. A sunny day, the kids are tripping by, there’s a tree in the yard and bikes on the street and a car in the front. He was born in Sicily or Donegal or Dubrovnik, he came here with one change of clothes tied in a cloth and slung on his back, he didn’t even speak English, and now look—his grandkids with the bikes. “This is the American dream,” he says. And the kids, listening, looked around, saw the houses and the car, and thought: He means the American dream is things. By inference, the healthier and more enduring the dream, the bigger the houses get, the more expensive the cars. (They went on to become sociologists and journalists.)
But that of course is not what Grandpa meant. He meant: I started with nothing and this place let me and mine rise. The American dream was not only about materialism, but material things could be, and often were, its fruits.
The American dream was never fully realized, not by a long shot, and we all know this. The original sin of America, slavery, meant some of the oldest Americans were brutally excluded from it. The dream is best understood as a continuing project requiring constant repair and expansion, with an eye to removing barriers and roadblocks for all.
Many reasons are put forward in the argument over whether the American Dream is over (no) or ailing (yes) or was always divisive (no—dreams keep nations together). We see income inequality, as the wealthy prosper while the middle class grinds away and the working class slips away. There is a widening distance, literally, between the rich and the poor. Once the richest man in town lived nearby, on the nicest street on the right side of the tracks. Now he’s decamped to a loft in SoHo. “The big sort” has become sociocultural apartheid. It’s globalization, it’s the decline in the power of private-sector unions and the brakes they applied.
What ails the dream is a worthy debate. I’d include this: The dream requires adults who can launch kids sturdily into Dream-land.
When kids have one or two parents who are functioning, reliable, affectionate—who will stand in line for the charter-school lottery, who will fill out the forms, who will see that the football uniform gets washed and is folded on the stairs in the morning—there’s a good chance they’ll be OK. If you come from that now, it’s like being born on third base and being able to hit a triple. You’ll be able to pursue the dream.
But I see kids who don’t have that person, who are from families or arrangements that didn’t cohere, who have no one to stand in line for them or get them up in the morning. What I see more and more in America is damaged or absent parents. We all know what’s said in this part—drugs, family breakup. Poor parenting is not a new story in human history, and has never been new in America. But insufficient parents used to be able to tell their kids to go out, go play in America, go play in its culture. And the old aspirational culture, the one of the American dream, could counter a lot. Now we have stressed kids operating within a nihilistic popular culture that can harm them. So these kids have nothing—not the example of a functioning family and not the comfort of a culture into which they can safely escape.
This is not a failure of policy but a failure of love. And it’s hard to change national policy on a problem like that.