Still Believe in the American Dream?

Much has been written lately about increasing economic inequality and declining faith in the American Dream. The American Enterprise Institute recently reported a 47% decrease over the last 25 years in those who believe the American Dream is “very much alive,” and a 145% increase in those believing it is “not really alive”! Half of those surveyed believe the Dream is only “somewhat alive.”

These dramatic perceptual changes are supported by research identifying a new “Gilded Age” with greater concentration of wealth and income, and stagnation of economic mobility since the 1950s. In short, economic reality does not match the Dream for millions of Americans. How might we respond to this gap between our ideals and reality? The answer will help illuminate the political debate over what ought to be done about the economic challenges we face.

Scholar Samuel Huntington has argued that there are patterns to Americans’ responses to these kinds of cognitive dissonance, and they vary according to two factors: 1) how intensely we believe in the ideals, and 2) how clearly we see the gap between ideals and reality.  As a stylized version of his arguments, he labels those who clearly see the gap and have a strong belief in the Dream “moralizers” who react primarily by working to eliminate the gap. “Cynics” are those who see the gap clearly but possess a weak belief in the Dream and simply tolerate the gap. Those strongly believing in the Dream but failing to recognize the gap are viewed as “hypocrites” who react with denial. Finally, those who weakly believe in the Dream, and are ignorant of any gap, are seen as “complacent.” Historical periods, he argues, are typically characterized by the dominance of one of these four patterns.

The last time there was substantial agreement about the existence of a gap between American ideals and reality was during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. That consensus resulted in some of the most important steps ever taken to democratize our political and economic systems including court-ordered desegregation of public schools, and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

Despite a stubborn, powerful, minority that responds to the arduous economic realities of millions of Americans with hypocrisy, cynicism, and complacency, there is growing bi-partisan recognition of the need for a recalibration of the country’s engine of economic opportunity. With efforts like the passage of local living-wage laws, major corporate initiatives to increase wages and benefits, the recent action by the CEO of Gravity Payments to cut his salary 90% to be able to significantly boost his employees’ pay, and the refocus on poverty in America represented by the latest White House Summit, we may be on the verge of a new civil rights movement centered around genuine economic opportunity for all. The key is to recognize and push against policies that exacerbate the expanding gap. How much do you believe in the Dream, how clearly do you see the gap, and how will you choose to respond?

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