According to ABC News/Yahoo News pollsters, only 50% think the American dream still holds true. 43% said that it had once been true. Only 4% thought there was never such a dream. There were some interesting variations in the research. The better-off, the better-educated, and the West Coasters had more faith in the dream that the poor, the less-educated, and the Rust-belters.
But let’s back up a bit and ask, “What is the American dream?” The pollsters defined it as, “if you work hard you’ll get ahead.” Gregory Rodriguez, the LA Times journalist who wrote up the report, said that this “dream is the glue that keeps us all together.”
It’s the vague promise that our lot will get better over time that gives us the patience to endure whatever indignities we suffer at the moment. It’s the belief that our kids will have a better chance in life than we do that keeps the many elements of this diverse, highly competitive society from ultimately tearing each other apart. More than anything else, it’s the fabled dream that fuses hundreds of millions of separate, even competing individual dreams into one national collective enterprise.
As a fairly recent arrival on these shores, I must confess to being a bit stunned at this report. I’m not stunned that only 50% think the dream still holds true. I’m stunned at the dream: “if you work hard you’ll get ahead.” Is that it? Is that what Pilgrims risked everything for? Is that what those who wrote the Declaration of Independence dreamed? Is that what distinguished America over the years? Is that the core of the American identity?
Surely the original American dream was “one nation under God.” Yes, I know that was only added to the pledge in 1954. But it essentially summed up the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The American dream began with God as Creator ruling over His creatures, and graciously bestowing upon them the religious, political, and economic freedoms that produce a united, educated, disciplined, hard-working, loving, and generous people. “If you work hard you’ll get ahead,” is a fruit of the dream, but not its root. And if all you do is pluck the fruit and hack away at the roots, the tree will eventually fall down.
The LA Times reporter noted the social strains resulting, he said, from only 50% still believing in the pollsters’ dream:
With the glue of the dream holding at 50%, it’s nothing to cheer about. And if that number falls further, it could pose as great a menace as any outside enemy. Which should lead us to believe that we must restore our inner core rather than fret about external threats.
Rodriguez is right about the social strain on America. And he’s right about the potential of internal menace. But he’s completely wrong in saying that the answer is more people to dream the dream (as the pollsters defined it). That’s the way to a nightmare.
The answer is a new dream. In fact the answer is an old dream: “One nation under God.” Are there only 4% left who think that’s a dream worth dreaming?