SPINKS: Only in dreams
The idea of an “American Dream” has lost its relevance to most Americans
When it premiered in early 2012, HBO’s “The Newsroom” made waves with its opening scene, wherein a fictional news anchor, when asked what makes the United States the greatest country in the world, responded, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, Professor, that’s my answer.” It was risky territory for the show’s scriptwriters to traverse — for an actual politician or pundit to echo the sentiment in real life would be professional suicide. But it is possible that the United States is less than exceptional, and I think it’s time that we give that possibility some serious consideration.
Modern political rhetoric surrounding American exceptionalism cites concepts such as “freedom”, “liberty”, “democracy” and, most importantly for the purposes of this column, “the American Dream” as evidence of our superiority. But does the American Dream still exist in a practical sense? Does it offer anything tangible for citizens, or merely empty words that we use to perpetuate patriotism? I would argue the latter: the traditional American Dream has been lost.
Last Wednesday, the Miller Center held a town hall forum on the state of the American Dream. The panel’s fundamental contention seemed to be that economic security was central to the American Dream. They spoke of traditional aspects of the American Dream: the ability to go to college, find a job, become a homeowner and get married. A survey that the Miller Center conducted jointly with the Washington Post revealed that the majority of people consider a college education to be the single most important factor in achieving the American Dream.
At this point, the town hall meeting was temporarily hijacked by audience members who were protesting the restructuring of AccessUVA, the University’s financial aid program. The protesters argued that the American Dream was becoming elusive because higher education was becoming unaffordable and inaccessible to minority and lower-income students. This is a valid point, and is certainly reflected in the attitudes of members of the millennial generation. When asked in 1986 whether the phrase “the American Dream” held personal meaning for them, 69 percent of respondents aged 18-29 answered yes. When the same demographic group was asked the same question in 2013, only 51 percent expressed a personal connection with the idea.
The panel placed a lot of the blame, for lack of a better term, for the disappearing American Dream on the millennial generation, holding that there has been a cultural shift in values between the baby boomers and now. Millennials don’t care as much about homeownership, preferring a nomadic, exploratory existence. One panelist argued that millennials don’t want to be nomadic but avoid homeownership out of economic necessity. In any case, the importance young people place on establishing a permanent residence has declined. The millennials also place less value on marriage and family life, preferring to wait until later in life to settle down and have children. So, the argument goes, fewer people are achieving the traditional American Dream simply because it is no longer a desirable package.
But I think the examination could have, and should have, gone a lot deeper than that. Are education and homeownership really cornerstones of the American Dream? For me, it seems that freedom is more fundamental. People come to the U.S. because they believe in the idea that you can start from nothing and end up with everything you want — provided that you are willing to put in the work. America is a place where people are supposed to have the ability to pursue their passions and succeed in them. America is not a land of white picket fence homogeneity. To me, the problem is not that the American Dream has become unachievable — it is that it is achievable only by the few.
Personally, I am fairly assured of my own American Dream. But that doesn’t seem to be true because of any governmental or societal effort to safeguard my success; it seems that I am more likely to achieve the American Dream because of who I am. Things like my race and my socioeconomic status, which are wholly out of my control, have set me up to win in the game of life. Many may argue that it is not the government’s place to assist citizens of lower socioeconomic status or of traditionally oppressed racial groups. Why should the government offer legislative or monetary support for these people, when those of majority races and classes were not offered the same? What dissidents of governmental support fail to realize is that although they may have never received direct assistance from the government, they were automatically given advantages that stemmed from their race, class or gender. They were already far ahead.
My main argument is that the American Dream is no longer meaningful, because most people don’t have the resources or opportunities to seize it. The American Dream is (or should be) about more than economic security, and we should work harder to assure that American citizens are given equal chances to find happiness in this country. If we don’t do that, touting the “American Dream” as evidence of our exceptionalism is not only senseless, but also embarrassing.
Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Mondays.