The American Dream is the easy availability of upward mobility for Americans. It means an open society with a general upward trend in social status for the majority of citizens and their descendants. This contrasts with a tightly-structured society in which the status of one's ancestors determines one's life chances, or in which government planners make all major social choices (see Socialism). For those who like to worry, the idea that the American dream is fading away for the middle class has been a common trope for over 75 years, including today, and has never been true.
Origins of the phrase
James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), a conservative historian, was the first to name "the American Dream" and interpret it as the full realization of human potential:
- The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is 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.
Cullen (2003) argues there are multiple meanings for the term, all united by core values of "freedom" and "agency," through which individuals have control over the course of their lives. Agency "lies at the very core of the American Dream, the bedrock premise upon which all else depends." Cullen traces the meaning of the term to Jefferson's classic phrase in the Declaration of Independence, the freedom to seek "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
In 1993 President Bill Clinton argued:
- The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one: if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.
The theme of the 1996 Republican convention was 'Restoring the American Dream,' and convention speeches were filled with American Dream imagery. Dole's own speech stressed individualism over collectivism and called for a broad, even multicultural, interpretation of the American Dream. In their acceptance speeches, Democrats have traditionally focused on the importance of community and society while Republicans have increasingly emphasized individual struggle. In 1996, the nomination acceptance speeches of Dole's opponents, Clinton and particularly Perot, borrowed from the Republican vision of individualism and personal responsibility which first gained popularity with the Ronald Reagan presidency of the 1980s. The persistence of American Dream imagery in the speeches of party nominees since the 1960s shows the confidence politicians place in its appeal. The presidential candidates who have best articulated the country's visions and values have been victorious.
The Zogby poll in Dec-Jan 2008-9 found 60% of Americans believed in the national dream.
They gave these reasons:
- 59%: "I'm intelligent and work hard, so I should succeed."
- 52%: "America is the land of opportunity."
- 25%: "I am an optimist."
- 25%: "I have a secure job or business."
- 15%: "My religious faith insures I will find fulfillment."
- 2%: Not sure or other.
Here are the reasons given by the 40% who say the dream does not exist:
- 44%: "The powers that be don't care about people like me."
- 29%: "Americans shouldn't think of themselves as special and entitled to an ideal life."
- 27%: "Where I live, it costs too much, and the American Dream is just out of reach."
- 14%: Not sure or other.
- 10%: "I am a pessimist."
- 8%: "I have been forced to take a lower-paying job."
- 7%: "I don't have enough education and can't afford to go back to school."
- 7%: "I recently lost my job and am out-of-work."
Among Republicans, 61% cite "America is the land of opportunity" as a reason why they can catch the dream. 49% of frequent church goers attribute their optimism to their religious faith. 76% of people under age 30 say their brains and hard work will bring them success.
Among those who reject the American Dream, 46% of those younger than age 30 believe that Americans aren't entitled to a better life, which fits perfectly into their overall more global outlook. Almost as many of those young adults (44%) say that the cost of living is just too high for them to achieve the dream. Conservatives who don't believe in the American Dream are about 10 points more likely than liberals of the same mindset to say that the powerful don't care about them. These liberals are more likely (37%) than conservatives who have forsaken the American Dream (24%) to believe Americans shouldn't think of themselves as special and entitled to an ideal life.
A different poll sponsored in spring 2009 by the New York Times and CBS News showed 72% of Americans believed it is possible to start out poor in the United States, work hard and become rich — a classic definition of the American dream. 44% said they had actually achieved the American dream, although another 31% said they expect to attain it within their lifetime. Only 20% have given up on ever reaching it. In 2005 19% defined the Dream in terms of financial security and a steady job, and 20% gave answers that related to freedom and opportunity. In 2009 fewer people are pegging their dream to material success and more are pegging it to abstract values. Those citing financial security dropped to 11%, and those citing freedom and opportunity expanded to 27%.
Typican answers in the category of freedom and opportunity:
- “Freedom to live our own life.”
- "Created equal.”
- “Someone could start from nothing.”
- “That everybody has a fair chance to succeed.”
- “To become whatever I want to be.”
- “To be healthy and have nice family and friends.”
- “More like Huck Finn; escape to the unknown; follow your dreams.”
Those who responded in material terms gave these answers to what is the Dream:
- “Basically, have a roof over your head and put food on the table.”
- “Working at a secure job, being able to have a home and live as happily as you can not spending too much money.”
- “Just financial stability.”
- “Owning own home, having civil liberties.”
Historian Kevin Starr in his grand seven-volume history of the state has explored in great depth the "California Dream"—the realization by ordinary Californians of the American Dream. California starting in the late 19th century promised the highest possible standard of life for the middle classes, and indeed for the skilled blue collar workers and farm owners as well. It was not so much the upper class (who preferred to live in New York and Boston). The California Dream meant an improved and more affordable family life: a small but stylish and airy house marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space, such as the ubiquitous California bungalow and a lush backyard—the stage, that is, for quiet family life in a sunny climate. It meant very good jobs, excellent roads, plentiful facilities for outdoor recreation, and the schools and universities that were the best in the world by the 1940s. James M. Cain, an eastern writer who visited the Golden State, reported in 1933 that the archetypal Californian "addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile."
The American dream has always been a magnet for immigrants. Surveys show that Americans indeed have higher aspirations for themselves and their children. Thus three-quarters of Americans, compared with only one-third of Britons, West Germans, and Hungarians, and even fewer Dutch, agree that they have a good chance of improving their standard of living. Twice as many Americans as Canadians or Japanese think future generations of their nationality will live better than the present generation.
- David Brooks (a conservative) and Gail Collins (a liberal), debate "Is the American Dream Over?," New York Times Dec. 9, 2009
- Adams, Epic of America (1931) p.214-215
- Cullen (2003) p. 10
- Quoted in Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (1995), ch. 1
- Ray D. Dearin, "The American Dream as Depicted in Robert J. Dole's 1996 Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech," Presidential Studies Quarterly 1997 27(4): 698-713,
- John Zogby, "The American Dream Is Still Strong: It's dipped but marches on, despite the recession," Jan. 30, 2009 press release
- Katharine Q. Seelye, What Happens To The American Dream In A Recession?" New York Times May 8, 2009
- Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (2009)
- Data cited by Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (1995), ch. 1
- Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. (2003) online edition
- Hochschild, Jennifer L. Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (1995) excerpt