Competing Visions of the American Dream are Driving Democrats and Republicans ApartRoundup
tags: election 2020
Steven M. Gillon is a senior faculty fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and teaches history at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of America's Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. He is writing a history of the Clinton administration.
It comes as no surprise that the Democratic and Republican conventions highlighted the stark gulf separating the two parties. Their differences stem not just from how to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic or differing views about race and racism; they are rooted in fundamentally divergent visions of the American Dream. In 1931, historian James Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” to capture the uniqueness of our national experience and the optimism of our people. He built upon a constellation of ideas that date to the “self-evident” truth, identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “ … all Men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Those immortal words captured our noblest ideals and highest aspirations, and at its core, the American Dream promises that they apply to all Americans, regardless of birth.
But as each generation has sought to make this vision a reality, it has defined and redefined the American Dream and the election this November will decide not only who occupies the White House but also how the dream will be defined and shaped for future generations.
The success of the New Deal and the economic expansion after World War II led the American Dream to became associated with buying things — a big house in the suburbs, a new car and the latest kitchen gadgets. The primary goal was a consumerist one: to earn enough money to lead a more comfortable life than your parents.
Even more than the New Left, the African American freedom struggle was the engine that drove the redefinition of the American Dream. Not only did the civil rights and Black Power movements demand and secure greater legal rights for Black Americans, but they also spearheaded other empowerment movements, especially for women, racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. The Black Power movement, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and political control, infused other marginalized groups with new energy and bolder ambitions to demand recognition. Together, these movements dramatically expanded the range of rights that people — especially the disenfranchised — envisioned as part of this idealized life.
Their emphasis on choice and freedom redefined the American Dream anew. So dramatic were the changes that some pundits declared the dream dead. But for most Americans, the dream still exists but has become about self-fulfillment not material gain — although economic stability certainly contributes to a sense of self-fulfillment. After a survey of over 2,400 representative Americans in 2019, political scientist Samuel J. Abrams concluded that the “most significant factor in pursuing the dream” was “to have the freedom to choose how to live one’s life.” The data was clear, he concluded, “being able to have a good family and live one’s life freely are far more important in the minds of millennials, and Americans generally, than homeownership and career considerations.”
But Republicans never signed on to this latest reimagining. Sensing political opportunity, they clung to a narrower definition focusing on the cultural and economic grievances of the White working class — the group whose parents had benefited most from postwar prosperity and who found themselves falling behind the rest of society beginning in the 1970s, thanks to deindustrialization, globalization and automation. They have been laid off or downsized, and many face financial hardship and fear that their children will suffer from even fewer opportunities. A host of ills — wage stagnation, soaring costs of education, declining rates of homeownership and high unemployment — attest to their economic plight.
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