Time’s “The History of the American Dream” a limited overview

Time’s latest cover story titled “The History of the American Dream” (here is the image and the story) seems to be the epitome of a piece that runs when there isn’t big news for the week (and they were just a day or two away from leading with the Jerry Sandusky verdict…). The article itself offers a limited history while repeatedly suggesting the idea of the American Dream is under attack because of economic and political realities. Here are a few quotes from the story:

The Dream is about liberty and prosperity and stability, but it is also about escape and reinvention. Mark Twain understood this. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t flinch from the racism and greed of American life. If there is any redemption to be found, it comes from small moments of communion, of humanity. The novel concludes with the enslaved Jim’s being granted his freedom and Huck’s deciding “to light out for the Territory, ahead of the rest” — an enduring American impulse and an essential element of the American Dream.

The myth of the West was the myth of the nation: that all of us could light out for the Territory and build new, prosperous lives. The allure of the belief in the individual’s capacity to make his way — to cross oceans or mountains — only grew stronger as America grew older. Our center of political gravity has always been in motion from east to west (and, to a real extent, from north to south). Though the Census of 1890 declared that the frontier was no more, the idea of packing up and moving on to better things has never faded.

Yet there is a missing character in this popular version of the story of America’s rugged individualism: the government, which helped make the rise of the individual possible. Americans have never liked acknowledging that what we now call the public sector has always been integral to making the private sector successful. Given the American Revolution’s origins as a rebellion against taxation and distant authority, such skepticism is understandable, even if it’s not well founded. As we have with race, we have long proved ourselves quite capable of living with this contradiction, using Hamiltonian means (centralized decisionmaking) while speaking in Jeffersonian rhetorical terms (that government is best which governs least).

The best part of the article: it mentions the important role of government (though he could have included state and local governments as well). Jon Meacham discusses how the government supported the railroad as it granted charters, right-of-ways, and land to companies that wanted to make money and also happened to open up the interior. The contrast here is interesting and instructive: Americans claim to be individualists but the American Dream has been supported by government policies and monies for a long time.

A few things the article could have done better and both of these are tied to more recent understandings of what the American Dream means:

1. Meacham tries to take the big picture here going back to the founders and discussing the Civil Rights Movement. But he misses a key component of the American Dream as it is understood today: the connection to the American suburbs and homeownership. This movement has transformed the country from a land of frontiers to a suburban nation where since the early 1900s, those with opportunity tend to move out of the city to a place that offers some of the city and country.

2. Meacham also misses the role of consumption. Meacham is talking about big ideals in this story but for some Americans, the Dream means being able to live at a certain level. This is exemplified by an early quote in this story about the findings from a White House Task Force:

“middle-class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income. [We assume] that middle-class families aspire to homeownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.”

This is all about consumption, even if each of these objects could be argued to promote liberty, happiness, and human flourishing. The idea of the American Dream was sold heavily to the American public starting in the early 1900s by corporations who wanted to sell refrigerators, cars, radios, and other products. Indeed, the modern understanding of the American Dream is very much influenced by the rise of the mass-production economy as well as the economic prosperity America experienced.

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