THE INSTITUTE ON THE AMERICAN DREAM
What is the American Dream?
From Horatio Alger to the present day we have pushed at the dream of success. Many associate successes with moral virtue – your victories show that you are a good citizen, a loved child, an upright parent, and favored by God. This has energized millions and doubtless has helped America socially and economically. Hard work, reliability, and inventiveness are claimed to be the mainstays of American international success as well.
But what if you fail? Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is an American classic. Christopher Bigsby writes in the Introduction to the Penguin edition :
Willy ran his car into a tree. Was that because of a constricted, or damaging, or even hollow American Dream? We must ask, what are the criteria of success in America? Are they healthy criteria? What alternative definitions of success might we collectively embrace? Does our wealth and security depend on motivating people to pursue a potentially harmful dream of success? Is this a sly way to keep the rich in place?
Malcolm X said: ‘I don’t see an American Dream–I see a nightmare.’ Yet from the beginning America had visions of itself as a chosen and successful nation set apart to show the world the virtues of democracy, capitalism, individualism, and service to others. Internally, Americans prided themselves on the ability to turn the country around on social issues, but even though slavery ceased, Abraham Lincoln called America the "almost chosen people" realizing many faults were not yet overcome.
Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, called for a restatement of the dreams of the founders and Lincoln so that freedom and equality could be gained for African Americans and other oppressed American groups:
We can ask if America has a mission to the world to promote the dream of success, freedom, and equality as many Presidents and others have claimed. If so, how can the Dream creatively relate to competing ideologies and religions without being imperialistic? It is always time to look again at the ways of understanding the American Dream spiritually and materially, to its positive and negative aspects, and to ask the founders’ question – what is America for?