Voting on the American Dream

In between the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was asked to review an article concerning the attitudes of displaced workers toward their plight. The study suggested that cultural narratives shape the social and political consciousness of those suffering economic distress in both positive and negative ways.  The article made me think about the convention speeches and the impact that they may have on working- and middle-class listeners whose lives have been disrupted by the Great Recession. How might they use the words and cultural narratives suggested in the convention speeches?

The New York Times actually tracked how often the Republicans and Democrats used certain words at their conventions. Other than the names of the presidential candidates, God, and taxes, the most common terms at both conventions were work, jobs, families, opportunity, economy, and success. All of these terms are closely associated with the American Dream, which was also mentioned frequently.

The frequent use of these words is to be expected, given that the American Dream has been the most dominant aspirational and cultural narrative in our county. Among other things, the American Dream suggests that through hard work and education individuals could improve their standard of living and that improvement would continue for each successive generation.  But that narrative has become contested because of declining socio-economic conditions and downward class mobility. A question now being heard, as noted in an NPR story last spring, is whether the American Dream is still viable, or has it become a nightmare?

To answer that, it helps to consider the political uses of the American Dream.  Political economists have suggested that it has served hegemonic purposes, allowing small but powerful groups to exercise political power with high levels of popular consent. In the case of the American Dream, they suggest, elites have used this powerful narrative to create a social and political consciousness that would not threaten the privileged.  For example, some elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support.  A recent example appeared in the Republican convention, which emphasized the claim that “We  Built It” in response to President Obama’s suggestion that businesses don’t build the roads and infrastructure that allow their enterprises to succeed.

But what happens when the American Dream becomes discredited?  Does it lose its ability to shape political consciousness? As the Occupy Movement has shown, the American Dream has been betrayed, and today the story of America is characterized by injustice, inequality, and unfairness.  But that movement created what’s called a counter-hegomonic narrative, a story that made clear that the Dream is no longer attainable.  A narrative emphasizing the betrayal of the American Dream could play a powerful role in shaping social and political attitudes and in deciding the election this year, as the study I mentioned earlier suggested.

Of course, candidates still insist on citing the American Dream in their speeches.  But while some people still find hope in that narrative, others recognize that their own situation reveals the Dream’s contradictions. So what will be the dominant influence?  Hope?  Or a change in the way we think about the American Dream?

I suspect that people will look more critically at the limitations of the American Dream narrative than they have in most previous elections. A recent Pew Research study shows that Americans increasingly define themselves as lower class. The greatest shifts occurred among adults under 30, especially whites and Hispanics and those without a college degree (whom pollsters often consider working-class), though many who have college degrees also identified as lower class.  The pattern holds across political affiliations, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More important, those who identified as lower class also supported the idea that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, and they expressed little optimism for the future.

Given that, politicians would do well to go beyond embracing the American Dream and instead identify clear strategies for renewing its viability.  Unfortunately, neither party has been able to suggest anything except increased education,  and they offer few concrete plans to help more people attain that.  Most of the time, the best they can do is make oblique references to raising the standard living and improving trade and manufacturing policies.  Despite their fervent statements of faith in the American Dream, what we’re hearing is mostly aspirational political rhetoric.  And many Americans just aren’t buying it anymore.

That skepticism might, eventually, provide the foundation for broader discontent, which could take many forms.  As Election Day gets closer, perhaps the biggest threat to both parties, but especially the Democrats, is apathy and resignation from voters who no longer believe in the American Dream.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

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38 Responses to Voting on the American Dream

  1. Pingback: Voting on the American Dream | Madison Scott English 11 |

  2. Stephanie Woon says:

    To me an American Dream is just a dream. A hope to install into everyones heads that things will get better, you are given what you put in, and everything is even & also fair. Elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support. But how is this possible when the government runs what they want how they want it. How is it possible to get a individual success individually when others have less or more taken from them from the start of their lives BY the government. You are being run by someone else how do we individually really do anything? If we start off and are born to a specific life how did we individually obtain that at all? We didnt ask for any of it. Not to mention how unconsiderate the government can be at times, we are all categorized we aren’t individually anything. The American Dream is just somthing to instill hope.


  3. Jaelynn Morrison says:

    The whole idea of the American dream has just been washed away. We don’t live up to any of the expectations we need too, Although, I do believe us as Americans have the potential to live up to the American dream but, since we have become more lazy and dependent we won’t live up to it. I believe the American dream no longer has any affect on politics and thats it has been majorly discredited.


  4. Amanda Barger says:

    I believe that the “American Dream” ruins America. It gives people these images in their head of what you’re supposed to live like, or if you haven’t achieved that then you’re not successful and that is false. The American Dream gives people a false sense of what it means to be successful. You don’t have to have lots of money, white or have the greatest job in the world to be successful. I believe if you are happy and you do what you love and you’ve accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in like then you are successful! I also disagree with when they said “hard work doesn’t lead to success..” because yes it does, you’re never going to get anywhere in life by being lazy and expecting everyone else to work hard for you!


  5. Dan Gerke says:

    The “American Dream,” is purely subjective, depending on what your idea of success is. Some people think money is the “American Dream,” and others simply think living in a country where it’s okay to practice your own religion defines the “American Dream.” I personally believe the “American Dream,” is the opportunity to become successful, but sometimes certain people never get that opportunity due to money restraints, or the class in which he or she is born into. If your father is a millionaire, chances are, your opportunity for success is greater, and you’re already born into the “American Dream,” and i think that’s why people get frustrated.


  6. Kaila Martin says:

    I still believe in the American dream. Presidential candidates throw it around and continue to make references to it because it is STILL attainable! No matter your age, class level, IQ, or race, anyone can get further education to better their lives. Yes college isn’t for everyone but there are so many other types of schooling available that make it possible to get an education and get a better job. I think what has happened to our country is that people became lazy, no one wants to do hard work or take the extra necessary time to try and change their lives and reach their goals. Too many people have become comfortable with and on the welfare system. So many Americans today abuse government assistance; to the point that even now some people who deserve the assistance because their working to provide for their families and it just isn’t enough can’t get it. If Americans got off the couch and got off of welfare and actually tried to do something with themselves maybe poverty levels wouldn’t be so low, maybe the economy would even get better, and maybe we could get back to a strong country.
    This is just what I believe but really isn’t American founded on taking a chance, fighting for what’s right and building something great?


  7. Ja'Lyn R says:

    The American Dream comes from within. It should be instilled in children during their early adolescent years. Parents should explore career options with their children as soon as they are able understand and recognize the importance of education, ambition, and determination. I believe you must get out there and make something of yourself. Waiting on the government to create jobs is one thing, but perseverance is the key to any success. Even if you are pushing a lawn mower or carrying a shovel door to door looking for opportunities to earn an honest dollar.
    Family values, beliefs, and skills are vital concepts in raising children. Sad to say, they are not being instilled, nor introduced to the youth today like they were fifty plus years ago. We are losing grandparents and great-grandparents without inheriting their knowledge and skills of sewing, cooking, carpentry, woodshop, automobile repair, etc. The Politian’s are grasping for anything to gain voters support, but the American Dream is not only dependent upon the government. The American Dream should come from within our own households. The Politicians can talk the talk… but it’s the Americans who must at least attempt to walk the walk. Our Nation was built on a foundation that everyone should have a fair share of opportunities. At this point, fingers being pointed at all political and economical aspects of the government, but who really caused the Great Recession? Politicians should stop selling a dream, but encourage our people of all races and social economic status to achieve. Show them that there is hope and that it does take hard work to achieve those aspirations. One may have a college degree and not even try to make it work for them. Most people want to be comfortable and should be encouraged to get ahead in life.


  8. Nick B. says:

    I feel as if the American Dream is now something of the past, and a term only used by political parties to get voters on their side. Hard work does pay off, but definitely not like it used to. America as a society has become flat out lazy from the bottom up. The younger generation has no desire to attain the so called “American Dream”, and have been spoiled by the older generations.


  9. Da'Nazha Fludd says:

    i think the aamerican dream is currently being miss judged and taken for granted. so many peple use this term on there on daily lifestyle and how they view it so there is no true meaning of the american dream anymore but rather based off of the person. this has become a social problem on how people view it.


  10. Da'Nazha Fludd says:

    From this i got that some people abuse the meaning or the ideal american Dream. now everyone makes there own meaning of the american dream based on there daily lifestyle. i firmly agree that its no true meaning of the american dream anymore because of the mstakes people have made.


  11. Kelsey M. says:

    The “Traditional” American Dream of working hard to achieve a successful way of life is the standard I live by, unlike most people today who live by the “Kicking and Screaming” approach. In today’s society people expect more of an “American Entitlement”, they are more concerned with what they believe they deserve to be given. As the older generation passes and the younger generation teach their children what they should expect to receive, the traditional American Dream will be something only taught about through History’s text books.


  12. Karrie Accola says:

    I think the American dream just is not what it used to be. The betrayel gets worse and worse. They are trying to sell America a dream. Some of us are buying it and some of us are not. The promises that are being made are not always being kept. i believe in an American dream because we all still have families, friends, god, jobs, and money. Some of us have more or less but atleast we have those things. Things might not be as great as they once were in America but hopefully in time it will. Also the American dream could have alot of hope now. The government just needs to stop lieing to people and making things out to be perfect when they are obviously not.


  13. Channel Madison says:

    The way things are now, at this stage, I don’t think that it should be an “American Dream” anymore. I also don’t think that trying to have the portrait of it is good anymore. It would be better off if people don’t try to make their life perfect in living the ” American Dream” and just be themselves. just live life.


  14. Stone Jewell says:

    The American dream used to be get a good education, so you can get a good job, so you can get married have kids and live in a house with a white picket fence. Today though the American dream is nothing but a fantasy up there with the works of Tolkien and Orwell. The only place the American dream still live strong is in politicians and that is just so they can use it to become elected, and its good people are starting to see through that. But what we need to ask ourselves is what made the American dream the American dream in the first place? What ideals and things made that what our grandparents and great grandparents strive for it? Maybe it isn’t the American dream that is broken but the people.


  15. Bill England says:

    This was a great article. I firmly believe that the American Dream has become just that-a dream, one I become increasingly concerned about never being able to attain. I don’t see any politicians on either side of the spectrum doing much to reassure me that this dream is still attainable. While the left gives the impression of being more concerned about making the dream a reality for middle and lower class Americans, and they still have my support (for lack of a better option), I don’t see anyone coming up for any real strategy for improvement. While the current administration puts an emphasis on education, they’ve made it harder for me to finish my education by limiting access to Pell Grants. With the debt that I will owe after I graduate, achieving anything resembling the American Dream seems like a fantasy that will at the very least take me many more years to achieve. Having said all that, I have no idea what it would take to make achieving this dream possible again, and with the current political climate, I don’t know if anyone else knows either.


  16. Olivia Ondecker says:

    I do believe their is An American Dream, though I do not believe it is the traditional American Dream that people are most familiar with. The constant talk of improving the standard of living and making it a necessity by politicians are great goals to have, but in this economy it seems as though they are not reachable by most of the people who have these goals in mind. Improving the standard of living will not happen over night and making college a priority and a necessity will only cause tuition to skyrocket and and put more people in debt by the time they graduate. I think it is possible to reach the traditional American Dream but I believe it will take years to accomplish and the majority of Americans to work together.


  17. Veronica Cromartie says:

    Honestly I don’t believe that there is an American Dream anymore, I mean there are a set of standards that we as Americans like to say we live up to but those are all superficial and ideal, we live in a country were we are suppose to have all these rights, freedoms and privileges, we’re like spoiled teenage children, and yet we are the most unaccepting and judgmental group of people out there. Most people think that just because they live in America, “a place we dreams come true”, that they are better than others or don’t have to work harder or even at all, most think that they are entitled to something just because of where they’re from. So if that’s the American Dream it is definitely something that I don’t want to live up to.


  18. Carleen Wright says:

    The American dream is not what it once was anymore. The American dream now-a-days is to graduate high school, have a child with your boy/girlfriend, and live in your parents basement. There are no values kept anymore, no one believes that there is a certain point that you need to become independent and be able to be on your own. Whether you are Republican or Democratic, it all depends on what your opinion is, not the good of the country.


  19. A. Phillips says:

    Just because America is always changing, does that mean the American Dream has to or already has as well? If it has, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We’re all responsible for the changes made in our government and country, and if we find the changes unacceptable it’s our job to correct them. The American Dream didn’t just “happen”. Our ancestors had to decide to make it a priority that the idea would be true for everyone in society and make decisions that would ensure it would still be present. Maybe as other more important issues took the spotlight (such as war, cultural change, etc.), preserving the idea of the American Dream became less of a focus for everyone. If we thought it would always be there and just trusted our government to make decisions that would keep it intact and not interefere with it, then perhaps our own ignorance and lack of participation in the assurance it would be preserved is to blame for the American Dream no longer being attainable. Whatever the reason, the next step is our choice to take. We can either choose to attempt to make the American Dream true again and see if by doing that other problems our country faces are solved, or we can define what the new Amercian Dream is by creating it out of the circumstances we face today to move forward.


  20. LaShay Howell says:

    I agree with the fact that the American Dream is no longer the same as it was before. I also feel that the American Dream can be different for the variety of cultures and races we have living in America. For me (an African American female college student) My American Dream is to own my own home (no white picket fence needed), have a job that I love, have enough money to take trips when I want to and live happily with my family. In a few years my “dream” may change. For others there “dream” may be different. I personally don’t think that there is “The Dream” but “A Dream”.


  21. Bryanna Grier says:

    I really liked this article. I do think that the American Dream is reachable, when looked at in a different way. Instead of striving for the American Dream, strive for Your own Dream. Politics make everything more complicated than it already is. Although we do need Politicians to aid us with making certain dreams possible. I think that Americans should start finding different routes in order to make their dream a reality.


  22. Lauren deWindt says:

    I don’t think the traditional American Dream still exists today. I think that the traditional view of the American Dream has vanished and it now includes making as much money as possible and being as powerful as possible. Nowadays, if you aren’t making money and moving your way up the ladder then you can’t be happy because money buys almost everything. I don’t necessarilly agree with that because my idea of the American Dream is more of the traditional view. All I want in life is love and happiness and I’m not worried about all of the other things going on with the government because those things don’t make me happy. So really each person gets to define what their American Dream is.


  23. Joslyn says:

    American Dream? I don’t think were living in our American dream today. This government has to much control/power over citizen’s rights, including the freedom to speak out on whats right and what each individual believes. Also feel like we lost on on our dream with health care, jobs, finances and etc. In conclusion, I feel that each American has their own way of considering what their dreams and ideas are. I consider the American dream being fair to others and acknowledging the fact that some people are in different social classes that need more government assistance.


  24. Jarrod MacCartney says:

    I completely think the American Dream is broken, I don’t believe these people who are raising in numbers towards the bottom are all lazy, these are people who are single parents, veterans, and former high-wage employees. Empty promises of an american dream that no longer exists to a lot of people is just falling on deaf ears. I have a really great quote I think fits, “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich.” Something needs to change in order for anything better to start happening. We have all these huge corporations we feed all our money into because they’ve brainwashed us to think we need more when we don’t, I think it’s possible to restore the american dream but not without a huge change. More than education, and more than jobs.


  25. Justin says:

    American Dream? What dream? For Americans I do not believe such a thing exists. Although I believe it does exist for foreigners coming to the United States to become citizens. Unless drastic changes are made for the middle class, and the working class I believe the economy will just get worse. The poor will become more poorer and the rich will become even more rich. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul”. All politicians lie in some shape or form, they tell you what you want to hear so they can get elected and only do so much. That is because if a Democrat is in office, the house is normally full of republicans who shoot all the bills down, or vice versa. Only time will tell, but I can only imagine when most of us college kids are going to do when we are done with college and ready for retirement. Retirement will not even be an option for the younger generation, or Social Security because it will be drained and everyone will have to work until they die or be homeless. Hopefully this does not turn out to be true, but it sure does look like we are heading in that direction.


  26. Marilyn Bo;;s says:

    The American Dream
    By Marilyn Bills
    What does it mean? I hear a lot of talk and promises of the American Dream especially during times of economic crises, but I have yet to personally experience it for myself. I am not complaining because I have been and is still being blessed despite the fact that I am a working-class minority. I don’t attribute many of my dreams to being “American” or any other Nationality. I believe that we all have dreams no matter where we are. I believe that one of the problems with this American dream theme is that we have fallen for political propaganda in a time of economic crises.
    We have distorted our needs with our wants. As a people, not just simply Americans, what do we really need? Is it homes, vehicles, education, healthcare, some recreation, and security? Or is it extra luxurious homes and cars, money that we and our children’s children could never live long enough to spend, and is it bigger egos that we need. Personally, I believe that we all have been brainwashed into believing that what makes use uniquely American is that we are supposed to have it all and more. We become disillusioned and disappointed when we work hard and don’t get all this stuff we think we need, not just to live, but to feel good about our lives. Don’t get me wrong, we are entitled to many human entitlements such as certain freedoms, decedent living wages and housing, healthcare, food, honest employers, and other essentials that help us to live. But see the difference? These are needs no matter where you live: why should they just be classified as “the American” dream as though such dreams belong only to Americans. These are the needs of all mankind not a dream. Our survival should never have to even enter the dream state. Something is seriously wrong when we have to dream about staying alive. What many of us really strive for and want is to fulfill the dream of having more and greater. Our needs can never be in the form of a dream. There is nothing wrong with having dreams of higher achievements in life—dreams keep us looking forward and they help make us very productive. But first, I believe that we need to have rights so that we can attain our dreams—this is necessary. I just believe that we need to look beyond merely “dream” consumptions and focus more on our inner-strengths that will help us to stand for what we believe: the politicians certainly aren’t going to do it for us. So let us not put all our faith in them. They are going to do as they have always done, continue to sell us an “American” dream that is non- applicable to us—by the people, not for the working-class people.
    No, the American dream is not what it seems to the majority of us especially in these past 15 years and even longer for others. Many of us play by the rules; we work harder and longer and end up poorer and poorer. Maybe we should take a leave-of-absence for a minute from listening to the deception and double-talk of politicians while we are becoming more and more disillusioned and disappointed about what didn’t happen according to the terms of the dream policy. True, we should be given the same opportunity to accomplish those things we dream to achieve, but before we lose sight of an important element in reaching our dreams, maybe we should envision ourselves empowering us, as a group, as a nation regardless of race, creed, or religion, and work toward a national goal—getting our original rights (as stated in the first ten amendments of the constitution) back and keeping them from being taken away from us again. Look at American history, it took a lot of struggling and effort for the common people to gain the rights that the future generations have profited from. Historically, these people got busy and pushed for what we are now dreaming of, our rights, that all people have an opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These people did not merely accept that they were entitled to the rights that they did not have; they demanded them and took them. So let us stop wishing for the right politician who will grant us our rights and began demanding what is rightfully ours from birth. Until this is done, we really don’t have much to dream about. Look at it, a dream is a vision and perhaps we can realize that we need to focus our views (visions) on the root cause of the decaying of our dreams.


  27. Tamala Bellish says:

    The American Dream…now that is something that I think all people are striving to reach. What I see is that politicians have a legal scam going and one that they get away with time after time. All those rights put into the Constitution to protect the people is sadly lacking luster. Everyone I know is living paycheck to paycheck and those running for office claim they are on our side……funny….all the money being spent on campaign ads and we have Americans straving and losing their homes. I think they are all out for the big guy that has the money to back them. My husband gets a raise and we lose it in taxes! It’s all B.S. if you ask me. They all beat around the bush but never come up with any clear cut strategies to help the poor, working class or middle class of people. It doesn’t matter who gets in office everyone does what’s right in their own eyes!


  28. Sara Appel says:

    Why “renew” the American Dream? So working and middle-class people can continue to aspire to be like the owning classes– to have what they have, and be more like them– rather than finding solidarity with other similarly situated folks? We remain proletarianized (for lack of a better word) largely as a result of our belief in the “carrot” of this Dream that’s supposed to justify all our “hard work,” sacrifice, and pacification to a labor system looking to further disempower us. Let’s make a new dream, predicated on different “rules” than those Obama and everyone else is always telling us to follow, together.


  29. Taylor Clark says:

    Due to the current state of the economy, I think that many people feel they aren’t living the “American Dream” because of the struggles they’re facing. I agree with the statement in the article that politicians would be more appealing if they chose to speak about clear strategies for renewing the “American Dream” rather than speaking of a feeling that many Americans are unable to identify with. I feel this is a better approach because many people would like to listen to a politician that has hope to improve factors that contribute to the “American Dream” rather than listening to something that is false within their own lives.


  30. Niki Lester says:

    I believe that one must continually better them selves to have their own American Dream. The government is not going to hand it to you. Getting a degree or just plain on working hard isnt going to get you there either. You must continually be bettering yourself, no matter where you came from.


  31. Shaneka Colpetro says:

    America would not be here if not the working class and middle class building it, like the streets and builds. The higher class in America built the politics. Do we still have an American Dream? I believe no until the middle, working, and poor class take the power from the higher class.


  32. Steph Hogle says:

    Even though it might not be traditional, I am living the American Dream right now. I have a home, 2 kids and a cat. (We can’t all have a dog, you know) I believe the dream is still attainable through hard work, but we as Americans, myself included, need to stop thinking that we can live beyond our means. It is reflected in our own Government as well that we are maxed out on our credit cards and robbing Peter to pay Paul. If we reign back our spending, pay attention to our own pockets and help those in need, then that IS the American dream to me. I do wish the Government would realise that as well though. Stop spending more than we earn!


  33. Miranda Castiglione says:

    As a Canadian student, I believe that America would be better off without the American dream. I see the dream as something that most if not all Americans strive for and it isn’t doing much for them.The American dream doesn’t promise anything to the people of America and doesn’t help them under the current circumstances. I believe with the American dream taken away people now have to think and strive for exactly what they want rather then what is seen to happen for them. A lot of people are noticing that the dream isn’t something that they believe, so the political parties using the American dream in their campaigns is a negative. If the dream is not taken away it should be looked over and fixed. America needs to fix the factors that go toward the American dream before most people start supporting and believing it.


  34. Sherry Linkon says:

    Posting on behalf of John Crawford:

    I think we’d be a lot better off without it. That is, it’s
    easy to point out, as you do, that many now feel
    betrayed–that the Dream offers them little to no promise
    of improvement under current circumstances. We’re a little
    like Penn State after it lost its governing narrative and
    most of its football team and is having to start from

    Losing American Exceptionalism might be the best thing
    that ever happened to us. Labor Unions would have to fight
    for both higher wages and benefits and at the same time
    acceptable educational standards–in other words, a new,
    more just because more educated, society, since no
    nationalist politician could be trusted to deliver justice
    to them.

    The last underpinning of justification for discriminatory
    practices would vanish. If we’re superior to no one, we
    can’t justify acts injurious to some of us to the
    advantage of others. We’ll wind up with a zero-game
    mentality: it’s all on us, succeed or fail.

    It may be that this would weaken the Democrats in the
    short run, but it would be far more of a blow to the
    Republicans eventually, because the monied classes have
    more sins to hide. If we are all to be held responsible
    for our behavior–if there are no shibboleths to hide
    behind–we need to roll up our sleeves for sure and build
    a just society.

    Welcome the day.


  35. Kelly Ohler says:

    The idea of the American Dream as one of betrayal is an interesting concept. F.Scot Fotzgerald also had a sense of this unique perspective. He saw the betrayal of the ideal as rather a con, something Barnum figured out long before anyone else. Within this con lies the ones who know they are being fooled, and ones who haven’t figured it all out yet.

    We have choices. We can chose to see the tricks and devices used to flip each sidef the coin; we can let ourselves be fooled, or we can become the con-man.


  36. rbkhoury says:

    Reblogged this on As Ohio Goes and commented:
    I’m only at the beginnings of my project, but this is precisely the sentiment that I have already encountered extensively.


  37. Kathy M. Newman says:

    Interesting post, John. It’s not nearly enough to invoke the American dream. What are all the social programs and ideas that made even the possibility of the dream possible? What would we need to put in place to have the dream?


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