Reviving the American Dream

The American Dream is a myth. 

You’ve no doubt heard this before. Books (The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield), TV shows (“Why the American Dream is a Myth” from Adam Ruins Everything), and countless, thoughtless think pieces tell us that our own dreams are worthless.

That’s right. Do the math. The American Dream is a myth. You are an American. Therefore, your own dream is a myth.

It wasn’t always this way. From the beginning, Americans believed the pursuit of happiness was an unalienable right. In the 19th century, Horatio Alger caused a sensation with his novels showing young adults achieving success through honesty, frugality, good works and discipline (avoid temptation, quit drinking, attend church). 

From Dale Carnegie to Stephen Covey, modern self-help books sent the message that you have the power within you to improve your circumstances. America was a land of opportunity where a better life could be achieved through education, hard work, and sound decision-making.

Today, however, America is viewed by political elites as an obstacle to happiness. Poverty is seen as static and determinative. Hard work and discipline are no match for malign forces—corporations, Wall Street, racism—beyond your control. The goal of the Left is not maximizing success but raising the minimum wage. 

That view has reached the mainstream. 

The American Dream is a myth,” says former Hillary Clinton adviser and economist Joseph Stiglitz. “The American Dream is just that—a figment of our collective imagination,” reads a commentary at NBC NewsOur “national mythologies are centered around meritocracy, opportunity, individualism, equality, prosperity and the country’s role as a benign force for ‘good in the world,’” myth-splains Chauncey DeVega at Salon.

So how do we counter this troubling trope?

First, it’s necessary to define the American Dream. Although a hundred people would give a hundred different answers, at its heart it has three elements: 1) Pursuing your own vision of happiness that is not dictated by outsiders or government; 2) making positive changes so you and your children may enjoy a better life; and 3) working to ensure the American Dream is open to anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or any other immutable characteristic. 

Not surprisingly, Americans are more optimistic about the American Dream than the elites. At least eight out of 10, according to a 2019 survey, felt they were well on their way to achieving it. This was the case across all demographics—white, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American. Eighty-five percent listed “freedom of choice in how to live” as a key component. 

Education, Family, Prosperity

Ironically, liberal policies are keeping the Dream deferred. Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Less than 40 percent of high school graduates, however, are ready for college-level reading or math. Over 1,000 U.S. public schools are listed as “dropout factories,” many located in bright blue inner-cities. Consequently, 60 percent of African-American students who start college do not finish. 

Joe Biden has called for four additional years of public education for every American. But what are we doing with the 12 years we already get? Real change starts with Democrats breaking up with the big teachers’ unions, which fight against charter schools and school choice at every turn. That isn’t happening anytime soon.

Family is equally important. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe “a good family life” is a prerequisite for achieving the American Dream. Children with fathers in the home are much more likely to stay in school and avoid the criminal justice system. And yet half of all U.S. children live in a one-parent home for at least two years. Divorce rates since the 1960s skyrocketed before dropping in recent years. Deadbeat and disappearing dads remain a serious problem. But to try to solve it is to commit “respectability politics,” which is out of bounds. 

What about prosperity? Income levels are tied to mobility, which is dependent on the automobile. But Democrats such as California Governor Gavin Newsom have declared war on the internal combustion engine. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has vowed to stop construction of “racist” urban highways, making a move to the job-filled suburbs that much harder. 

Instead, Democrats are laser-focused on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour or more in all parts of the country. A smaller “entry-level” wage that would give more opportunities to young people is out of the question. 

The Dream Is Real

Meritocracy is a fiction, says the Left, so why even try? Thus, the talk of the American Dream being a myth becomes self-fulfilling. 

When President George W. Bush introduced the concept of an “ownership society” where individual effort was rewarded, not punished, Hillary Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama mocked it as the politics of “you’re on your own.” If it takes a village, what chance does one individual really have? 

In his rebuttal to Biden’s address to Congress last month, Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted that before COVID-19 “we had the most inclusive economy in my lifetime” including record-low unemployment rates for persons of color. But instead of continuing those policies, Biden proposes to build back bureaucracy and bully businesses out of billions. Climate change is the new priority; the economic climate, not so much. 

“I still have a dream,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the March on Washington. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” That attitude is needed more than ever.

Until then, it is up to all of us to defy the elites by sending the message:

The American Dream is real and achievable. You are an American. Therefore, your dream is real.

About John Herr

John K. Herr is a writer who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. He has written speeches and jokes for numerous governors and cabinet secretaries, including two appointed by President Trump. He lives in Pennsylvania.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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