Dream of a Better Dream

The American Dream as Rod Dreher depicts it would be a sham, or the ideological manipulation of the credulous masses, or perhaps a lie we willingly tell ourselves:

The American dream is a lie. This idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — that’s very individualistic. Who’s that really about? Who is that serving? Who is that for? It’s for me. It’s a pursuit of happiness that doesn’t create happiness. There’s nothing with any substance at the end of that. So, if you work hard enough, are you going to defeat cancer? If you work hard enough, are you going to be happy with your job? If you work hard enough, and get a big bank account, does that create happiness? No!

I will not call Dreher a liar, but he is offering a false or exaggeratedly simplistic definition of the Dream that happens to suit his polemic.

Our working definition of the “American Dream” apparently goes back to one James Truslow Adams writing in the Depression year of 1931. We could speculate about the discovery of optimism from the depths of despair, or we could instead note the longer tradition within which Williams was writing.1 Either way, that the Dream arose within a culture of individualism, and may in some forms serve an individual interest, does not justify the assertion that “to achieve anything” must equate with some egotistical purpose. It seems almost a little ridiculous, because the idea is such a cliché, to note that the Dream in its common depiction is  actualized via self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence; that it is said to be undertaken for the benefit of the dreamer’s family or children or kith and kin; and that it is celebrated as a response to opportunity that also creates opportunities for many others, even very great benefits to all.

Whether and to what degree there is any truth to these claims would be secondary, except possibly in regard to those who proclaim the Dream without actually believing in it: Maybe the earnest immigrant is wrong to think the pursuit of happiness is a pursuit also or mainly for the happiness of others, or a higher happiness in their happiness and so on, or we are wrong to recognize the still revolutionary principle that all work is in principle work for others. If so, then those engaged in the pursuit may be wrong, but they are not in the wrong.

In the second series of questions, Dreher generalizes on the basis of a restrictive definition, interpreting the phrase “achieve anything” with a forced literalism suggesting either naivete or feigned naivete. Again, we are forced to point out something that ought to be obvious: The word “anything” in the popular motto will be interpreted by adults pragmatically. Adults will understand, and, if required by smart alecks will point out, that “anything” means “anything actually achievable“… as if you didn’t know. The typically exceptional American dreams up an achievable project, not a personal victory over cancer by “hard work” alone. The goal is typically improvement or progress, the merely and for many benumbingly merely possible dream of college-educated progeny, or suburban homeownership, or greater social-cultural or legally reflected acceptance.

The more enduring criticism of the American Dream is that it is banal. The more direct one is that circumstances at any time may make achieving it more difficult than it ought to be or than, it is thought, it used to be. There is a paradox or tension within any notion of a generally realizable, ordinary extraordinary dream, the one dreamed by each of the all above average kids of Lake Woebegone. The contradictions re-appear when Elias Isquith, following James Fallows and echoing Dreher, suggests that the American Dream might be a “Noble Lie” – i.e., a noble mediocrity – then decides it may not be. Like Dreher, Isquith and Fallows stumble over their own presumptions. For Isquith, “[i]t’s a shitty deal,” but he seems aware that it’s shit in, shit out in this instance: “If the Horatio Alger myth of rags-to-riches is all the American Dream’s got going for it…” Because the dream is really more an ethos than a fantasy or disprovable account, and not reducible to a set of economic indicators, it survives irony. Its paradoxes have been discounted ahead of time: You are free to make your Dream the Dream of a better Dream. The motto offers edifying advice, not a final descriptive totality, advice that Fallows’ admirable career may exemplify, and that one suspects Isquith re-adopts before every blog post.

The merely progressive rather than magical “If you work hard, you can get ahead” puts the Dream in an adequately flexible and resilient form. No great feat of the will or imagination will be required for us to adapt “getting ahead” to the same aspirations that receive Dreher’s approval: His late beloved sister’s personal, apparently very superior pursuit of a very superior happiness stands for another kind of “getting ahead,” an “ahead” ahead of the others, of a work wrought within, while the disappointment that accompanies or follows many or most or all worldly successes, perhaps even the triumphs of the spirit, serves in Dreher’s own argument as a stage on the way to a something better, even the progress of all pilgrims together. The American Dream must always be inherently of its own self-surpassing, the impulse to associate the good with our own increase in security, power, or things, the possible dream, impossibly harmonizing with the derogation or hatred of a world to be ended, or, in Dreher’s and his magazine’s case, of American identity at all.


  1. An amusing quotation from the Wikipedia article: As noted by earlier observers of nascent Americanism as a progressivist ideology: ” If [Americans] attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.” []

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Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution. 

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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