Ron Lora: Reflections on the American dream

In these troubled times for our country, it is understandable that many wonder if the “American dream” still lives. Might it be dead? Or at least dying? The dream evokes the ideal that all citizens enjoy “an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative.”

It includes the goal of upward mobility for citizens and immigrants alike in a land, far from Old Europe, that appeared hospitable to endless progress. A revered Constitution (the “safeguard of our liberties,” Lincoln said), the Declaration of Independence and even God served as underlying validations of the dream. Whatever the definition, from the earliest days it applied to white Americans but not to slaves and indigenous people. Early 19th-century women feared that it didn’t include them.

Although the actual term began to be used in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s that it fully took root. In his popular “Epic of America” (1931), historian James Truslow Adams defined it as “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.”

After World War II, it included concepts of suburban homeownership, a stable job and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Consumerism joined the belief that hard work was integral to the dream. More recently, it has included still other components, emphasizing diversity, inclusion, access to quality education and healthcare.

Dreams are one thing. Realities are often quite another. What we are experiencing today is a fiercely partisan divide that reflects polarizing anger and a fragmented political system based on preventing the other major party from profiting even from wise legislation.

Two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers believe Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Former President Donald Trump is facing 91 felony charges, and a majority of the caucus-goers indicated they would vote for him even if he is convicted on some of them. We are not mistaken in sensing a drift toward authoritarianism.

Beyond politics are wage stagnation and soaring economic inequality. Time was, eight decades or so ago, when as many as 90 percent of Americans could earn more than their parents; today perhaps only half will. We read solid accounts of the deteriorating mental health rates among children and the mass incarceration numbers over the past half century, and the psychological and economic outcomes of those who are released.

To note the darker facts of our history, including slavery, the displacement of Native American people and the “manifest destiny” that justified the seizure of Mexican land is sufficient to establish that the dream has always existed amid realities that are brutal and tragic.

The most recent entry into discussions of the American dream is “Ours Was the Shining Moment,” published in October. Journalist David Leonhardt sees the dream as having suffered a long decline as Americans give evidence of drifting from the ideals of liberty, equality and especially democracy. He identifies declines in labor movement membership and a sense of social responsibility among business leaders in the past half century as worrying.

His central theme is that capitalism remains “the best system for delivering rising living standards to the greatest number of people – but only a certain type of capitalism.” Replace “rough-and-tumble” capitalism and unchecked private interests with a more “managed capitalism,” in which government serves to moderate the ever-growing wealth gaps between the upper 1 and 2 percent of the population and everyone else. People, he argues, deserve greater agency in directing the economy.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, immigrants come to he United States not only to escape poverty and violence in their homelands but to pursue a better life here. Any number of readers of this column will through their lives validate the dream. Examples on a larger scale also abound. Among the better known are Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc., and Nikki Haley, now running for the Republican Party nomination for president.

We can draw inspiration from them and often from our own lives, especially if we remember that the American dream is not a promise but that it resembles a sermon pointing us to join as citizens with a common purpose of creating a society that is fairer and just for all.

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.