Whatever Happened to the American Dream?


The simple answer is ‘it is alive and well.”  But the form it takes varies greatly.  That form is, of course, defined by whoever has that dream.  But like so much of what I write, this subject needs a little history behind it.

The first people to have a dream that America could possibly answer were English merchants, followed by the group of separatists we now call the Pilgrims.  They were followed by the Puritans.  Each of these first three groups had their own separate and specialized version of the new American dream.  The English merchants saw huge economic possibilities in the New World.  The Pilgrim came purely for religious freedom, and the Puritans for a combination of both, religion and  business.  All three groups realized the American dream, some quickly, some a little more slowly.

Through 1945 at least, the idea of freedom of some sort, religious, business, personal, was the single most attractive part of the American dream.  Even when immigrants were sold a bill of goods, as the Italians and Poles who were recruited at the beginning to the 20th century to work American factories with the promise of riches, many had come to escape the persecution of the Tsar, military impressment, and starvation that the Italian immigrant had known.  They were huddled into ethnic masses, ghettos, in America’s cities, and while the original immigrants found it difficult to escape the squalor they found themselves in, most quickly came to realize that the potential for their children far outweighed whatever shortcomings they had endured.

But the end of World War 2 saw the return of over 2 million soldiers to the American economy.  The federal government, remembering the economic travails of World War One vets, decided to give veterans a way to buy their own homes through the Veterans Administration which gave rise to the VA Home Loan.  World War One vets had felt abandoned and when the depression hit, they formed what was called “Hooverville” right next to the capitol building.  They were a constant reminder the president and congress of the unfilled promises made them following WWI.

Enter a man named William Jaird Levitt.  In the late 1920s he developed an idea of selling a large tract of affordable housing to upper middle class Americans on Long Island.  The idea, while successful, was derailed by the depression.  During WWII he won a large contract to build housing for the navy.  But when the federal government came up with the idea of government guaranteed loans, Levitt cashed in by creating an entire town on Long Island, Levitttown.  Small tract houses were advertised to the veteran as a way to realize the American dream, at least as defined by Levitt.  Levitt invited ex-servicemen to visit his model house and see how they could cash in on the new American dream, a house, a car, a wife, and two kids.  That advertising ploy was hugely successful, so much so, that some years later Levitt repeated his idea in Pennsylvania.  But now, burned into the American psyche, was this new version of the American dream and it has survived to this day.

In 1922 Congress passed an immigration law, the first of its sort, the limited the number of immigrants who could enter the U.S.  The law, hugely racist, was passed using 1900 immigration figures as the basis of who could enter the U.S. and in what numbers.  In 1900 the largest portion of immigrants came from northern Europe.

On April 30, 1975, the American embassy in Saigon Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communists.  Americans saw on their television hundreds of Vietnamese, friends of America they were called, being airlifted off the top of the American embassy.  Shortly after that hundreds of Vietnamese who feared for their lives took to boats to escape their native land.  They became known as the “boat people.”  Most of those refugees were welcomed to America in no small part because of American guilt over what had occurred in their homeland.  The point here is, first, America made an exception to the immigration law, and second, but more importantly, these Vietnamese had an American dream in their minds that did not include a house, a car, and two kids.  Their dream was a throwback to the original settlers of English North America and the immigrants who came through the early part of the 20th Century.

Today’s politicians are selling the American public the idea that the American dream includes a right to a job, a right to very low taxes, and a right to feel entitled.  Those three things are a gross exaggeration of reality.  At the beginning of the 20th century poor immigrants desired one thing and one thing only, a chance.  They did not feel entitled to anything.  I think Americans today believe the American dream should be given to them and not worked for.

The American dream is alive and well, it is just not the one being sold by the politicians.  It is not up to the government to find you a job.  It is up to you.  It is not up to the government to lower the unemployment rate, it is up to business.  You are not entitled to a car, a house, or anything else save a chance equal to that of anyone else.  The American dream is the chance to lead a happy and successful life according to your own definition of what that looks like, and nothing more.

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