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Open To Thinking: The American Dream: Going, Going, … ?
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2014-06-04

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"I think this classic American Dream existed as a reality for many families right after WWII up until the mid-1960s when social and cultural changes started to shatter the harmony of the American middle-class dream."

In 1630, when John Winthrop uttered these famous words to his Puritan companions: " … for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us"; I don't think he had in mind an Italian teenager in 1950s urban America trying to escape the ethnic enclaves of Pittsburgh for a better life.

Although James Truslow Adams is often credited with coining the phrase 'the American Dream' in his 1931 book The Epic of America, we can find this phrase used throughout our history. Nonetheless, Adams has provided us with an often quoted and useful definition: "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

Alexis de Tocqueville, ever the keen observer, cited 'the charm of anticipated success' as a unique characteristic of the American character. My grandparents migrated from Italy to the U.S. precisely because they did not anticipate success in Italy. For many immigrants, even today, the U.S. means freedom from all forms of arbitrary authority and from historical and social conditions that constrain their pursuit of success, however they might define it.

Historically, the dream has been intimately connected to our frontier mentality. An 18th century wit observed: "…. If they [Americans] attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west." This striving for something better, richer, fuller is part of our American psyche.

Italian, Polish, Irish, Jew or Black, our Puritan ancestors invested us with a deeply ingrained conviction that in our new world everyone who worked hard ( honestly, competently, and soberly ) would have the opportunity to succeed materially and socially in 'the promised land.' I was more than a little suspicious of this ethic, seeing all around me much evidence to the contrary. But, truth be told, most of my 1950s contemporaries bought the dream in one form or another. And, many of them achieved it.

The American Dream in its classic form for middle-class America can be articulated thusly: own my own home; own my own car ( perhaps a second car or a pickup truck ); enjoy a steady, secure, life-time job with good wages, good health care benefits, good pension plan, and yearly three weeks paid vacation; have enough resources to send my kids to college; retire in comfort; and the assurance that my children will do better than I did.

Of course, it has always been true that the American Dream is a nightmare for many individuals from many different groups within our society, especially Amerindian populations, slaves, racial and sexual minorities, among notable others. But by and large and for the most part, millions of immigrants and the majority of the American middle-class have benefited from both the rhetoric and substance of this dream.

I think this classic American Dream existed as a reality for many families right after WW II up until the mid-1960s when social and cultural changes started to shatter the harmony of the American middle-class dream.

The particulars of the American Dream vary for each generation and for each social grouping. We can see, however, some common threads in the various articulations. One of these threads is the idea of opportunity. This special character of 'opportunity' in America received its 'sacred' secular formulation by Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

For some intellectuals, the American Dream might be formulated as belief in liberty, democracy, and free enterprise, and government protection and promotion of same.

Sometimes this version of the Dream includes the belief that everyone has ( or should have ) the opportunity to get rich, 'filthy rich.' The missionaries of this gospel of free enterprise/free trade frequently seek to extend this teaching throughout the world economic order in order to maximize WEALTH, the god that has replaced Winthrop's biblical god. Democracy and the Christian religion are the quondam handmaidens of this evangelical enterprise to preach the American Dream to all peoples and all cultures.

But something HUGE happened as we entered our new millennium: the .com boom went bust; the housing bubble burst; the financial markets teetered then fell; China was fast on its way to becoming the world's largest and strongest economy; the USA found itself ranked 26th among developed nations in terms of many major quality of life indicators; and the Millennials ( professionals born in USA after 1980 ) entered the market place burdened with higher-ed debt and no good job prospects.

The Millennials and the American Dream is the subject of my July column.

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com .

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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