The American Dream is undermining America

Todd Hoosear/Creative Commons

Todd Hoosear/Creative Commons

July 23, 2016

It is perhaps the most famous myth about the creation of America:  the “American Dream.” The belief that no matter what your background, where you’re from, or who your parents were, that if you work hard enough added, you can achieve anything, any goal, any dream.

The American Dream is not some inconsequential fantasy. For more than 200 years it has helped make America a land of meritocracy, given hope to many that they can rise above the circumstances of their situation, and powered a dream for many around the world that, if they can just make it to America, their lives will change and they will find hope and opportunity they have never known before.

But the American Dream has become a problem for America. Saying that does not come easy. Yet the evidence grows day after day that instead of creating a meritocracy, along with  all the other good things the American Dream symbolized, it has been taken over and corrupted and it is now being used to divide Americans.

The American Dream has always been more of a reality for certain groups than others. If your ancestors were Irish, or Polish, or Russian or English, the American dream was something you could grab and use to motivate yourself to new levels. The only thing that really stood in your way were the limitations that you created for yourself.

But for African-Americans (especially), Native Americans, Asian Americans and Arab Americans, for many years, and women of all races and sects, the American Dream was more a fantasy. And for some of those groups it remains stubbornly so. Institutionalized racism, misogyny, and bigotry kept many Americans from achieving the full potential that the American Dream was supposed to offer to all.

Here’s what else it’s done — and for this we can look to conservative politicians and media talking-heads: the American Dream has been used to not help but to attack certain groups.

Since we have this long-standing belief that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they work hard enough, the American Dream provides an excuse to criticize  individuals for whom the American dream has never really been possible. This twisted use allows people to point their fingers at others and chide “It’s your own fault; you just didn’t work hard enough at it.” And anyone who relies on any form of help, like government assistance or even private charity, is really just lazy. (This is one of the reasons that when many conservatives confront protesters of any kind, one of their most frequent insults is “Get a job!” – because taking the time to protest means that you’re not working.)

But an interesting thing happens when those individuals who have been pointing the finger suddenly find themselves in dire straits because of a lost job, a downturn in the economy, medical bills, or some other catastrophe. Do these people then turn to themselves and say, “Well it must be my fault, because in this country anything is possible, so these events must be my fault and I’m just being lazy”?

Not at all. The normal reaction is, actually, to blame the government or some of the groups mentioned above. And when those tough times affect a large number of people, it becomes easy for a demagogue to twist these feelings and say “I am the only one who can help you find the American Dream again, by turning back the clock to a time before all these changes happened, before the world became a scary place, back to a time when the American Dream was a reality for all [read ‘white] Americans.”

But America is a different place now. This is a very big nation with a very large population. And the reality of this nation is that without help many people will not be able to achieve or come close to the American Dream. It’s understandable why people don’t want to hear that, but only when we face the reality can we restore meaning to the American Dream, and  have it available to as many people as possible.

Finding the American Dream again will not be achieved through the racist threats and rantings of a half-baked celebrity demagogue. It will only happen when all involved – the government, private business, charity organizations, churches, you name it – work together to create a country with opportunity for all, and make America that beacon of hope we are all led to believe in.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

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