The American Dream was still-born

Okay, I’ve been working on this argument for years now. You’re welcome to tell me I’m full of it, but please support that assertion with some evidence. The short version goes like this: The American Dream, the idea that every one of us can prosper and succeed and experience upward social mobility if we just work hard enough, was never true for most of us.

The founding fathers, the “haves” of the American colonies, extracted the line about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (happiness included acquisition of material things, like land) from the Declaration of Independence and preached it to the “have-nots” to enlist their hearts, minds and especially their trigger fingers in the fight against Britain. And many of our ancestors answered the call. But when the war was over, the patriarchs expected common people (at least half of whom came here as unlanded, indentured servants) to return to their place at the bottom of the socio/economic ladder.

How serious were the “haves” about that? Look up the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, during Washington’s presidency, when farmers protested federal taxation of their homebrew (they thought that stuff about no taxation without representation applied to them, too.) The feds and state governors sent 13,000 militiamen to put it down.

Howard Zinn and others, including Pat LaMarche’s recent Daddy, What’s the Middle Class?, have documented repeated efforts of the “haves” to keep the “have-nots” from pursuing those inalienable rights embedded in the American Dream in soul-searing factuality. Yes, there was a brief, exceptional period after World War II when the “haves” needed the “have-nots” to work in their factories, but it’s pretty clear they don’t really need us anymore.

So, most of the ancestors of those who didn’t have much in the first place still don’t, relatively speaking, and those who did still do. The American Dream? Pure fantasy or else one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in the history of the world.

There’s a longer version of this argument that harkens back to the 14th century and factors in how stock markets have allowed the “haves” to keep the “have-nots” from ever getting even, let alone ahead. Maybe I’ll get into that tomorrow.



  1. Wayne Steffen · December 3, 2014

    A few years ago a pastor friend preached a sermon quoting a *study where Americans whose incomes ranged from $25,000-250,000 per year were asked “how much do you have to earn to achieve the American Dream?” The overwhelming answer across income levels was 15-20 percent more than their present income. That means the person earning $25,000 and the person earning $250,000 have one thing in common: in their own minds they’re not living the American Dream.

    The lesson is Americans always want more than what we have, and I’m comfortable swapping out the word “humans” for “Americans,” This desire for more of something has led to every achievement we’ve managed as a species, along with every act of greed and stupidity.

    The mistake, and I don’t know who made it first, was to attach the ideal of the American Dream to earning more dough. To me the ideal is one of freedom: to speak, to believe, to move, to pray, to not pray and to think of others as wonderful people or jerks. Sure, you need a certain amount of money to make that work in a practical sense, but its not all you need.

    I consider myself to have achieved the American Dream because I have everything I need and most of what I want, which is all anyone is going to have. (I won’t tell you where I fall on the range covered in the study, except that I am on it, but I work–because I have to eat–at a smallish private Christian university and used to be a newspaper reporter, so that gives you an idea.)

    I’m not arguing that the have-nots (even the ones pulling down a quarter-mill a year) should stick to some economic “place.” But I do think we need to broaden our idea of what success is and what dreams may be.

    *Several minutes of research on Google (which qualifies as deep stuff these days) has not led me to this study, but I’m going to take a chance and trust my friend on this one.

    PS: Mark, let’s catch up!


    • Mark Kelley · December 4, 2014

      Well said, my friend. And I could embrace the same understanding of the “dream” for myself. My concern is for the millions of people who are sold the concept but have very little chance of achieving even what you and I have. I don’t think I’d really noticed poverty so much until we hit Vacationland. These people work three or four jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their children’s stomachs. Something like 17% suffer from food insufficiency on a daily basis. There are people going to bed hungry in my city and that really bothers me. And when your eyes are focused on the foundational needs every day, I’m not sure you have a lot of time to even think about the American Dream. I think you’re right in encouraging us to broaden our standards for gauging our achievement of the “dream,” but getting everyone on the same page, in an increasingly materialistic society, will not be an easy task. And I guess the question I’m avoiding in my day-to-day life is: If it’s the material inequity that bothers you (me), what are you going to do about it? Thanks for the additional thoughts. And, yes, let’s get caught up a bit. I miss competing with you for the hot stories :-), I also miss your friendship. Best, MK


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s