By Steven M. Gillon / Special to The Washington Post
It comes as no surprise that the Democratic and Republican conventions highlighted the stark gulf separating the two parties.
Their differences stem not just from how to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic or differing views about race and racism; they are rooted in fundamentally divergent visions of the American Dream. In 1931, historian James Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” to capture the uniqueness of our national experience and the optimism of our people. He built upon a constellation of ideas that date to the “self-evident” truth, identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: ” … all Men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Those immortal words captured our noblest ideals and highest aspirations, and at its core, the American Dream promises that they apply to all Americans, regardless of birth.
But as each generation has sought to make this vision a reality, it has defined and redefined the American Dream and the election this November will decide not only who occupies the White House but also how the dream will be defined and shaped for future generations.
For Jefferson, the American Dream meant owning enough land to guarantee economic self-sufficiency and personal independence, although only for White men and often at the expense of others’ freedom. By the end of the 19th century, hopes of social mobility had replaced Jefferson’s agrarian vision as millions of immigrants flooded into the nation’s growing cities and worked as cogs in large factories. Horatio Alger myths popularized the notion that impoverished boys need only work hard to rise to a life of middle-class security.
The consequences of industrialism and urbanization, along with the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a third phase of the dream. Challenges could not always be overcome by individual initiative. But Roosevelt’s New Deal, created in the midst of the Great Depression, established a precedent that if you played by the rules and worked hard, or wanted to work hard but suffered temporary setbacks, the government, and particularly the federal government, would provide both a handout and a hand up.
The success of the New Deal and the economic expansion after World War II led the American Dream to became associated with buying things: a big house in the suburbs, a new car and the latest kitchen gadgets. The primary goal was a consumerist one: to earn enough money to lead a more comfortable life than your parents.
Then, in the 1960s, this rosy dream steadily changed as a younger generation of baby boomers questioned the superficial emphasis on prosperity. The New Left began crafting a movement dedicated to participatory democracy and personal authenticity. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” the Students for a Democratic Society declared in their 1962 Port Huron Statement.
Even more than the New Left, the African American freedom struggle was the engine that drove the redefinition of the American Dream. Not only did the civil rights and Black Power movements demand and secure greater legal rights for Black Americans, but they also spearheaded other empowerment movements, especially for women, racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. The Black Power movement, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and political control, infused other marginalized groups with new energy and bolder ambitions to demand recognition. Together, these movements dramatically expanded the range of rights that people — especially the disenfranchised — envisioned as part of this idealized life.
Their emphasis on choice and freedom redefined the American Dream anew. So dramatic were the changes that some pundits declared the dream dead. But for most Americans, the dream still exists but has become about self-fulfillment not material gain; although economic stability certainly contributes to a sense of self-fulfillment. After a survey of over 2,400 representative Americans in 2019, political scientist Samuel J. Abrams concluded that the “most significant factor in pursuing the dream” was “to have the freedom to choose how to live one’s life.” The data was clear, he concluded, “being able to have a good family and live one’s life freely are far more important in the minds of millennials, and Americans generally, than homeownership and career considerations.”
But Republicans never signed on to this latest reimagining. Sensing political opportunity, they clung to a narrower definition focusing on the cultural and economic grievances of the White working class, the group whose parents had benefited most from postwar prosperity and who found themselves falling behind the rest of society beginning in the 1970s, thanks to deindustrialization, globalization and automation. They have been laid off or downsized, and many face financial hardship and fear that their children will suffer from even fewer opportunities. A host of ills — wage stagnation, soaring costs of education, declining rates of homeownership and high unemployment — attest to their economic plight.
For many of these people, the old version of the American Dream is unattainable and the new one uninviting. The same empowerment movements that have energized the Democrats have left working-class Whites feeling alienated, marginalized and ignored. They felt abandoned by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which focused much of its attention on helping racial minorities and the poor, and they are offended by images of students burning flags and draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War. From Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” the GOP has successfully mobilized these voters by promising a restoration of the 1950s political and social order.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraced the rights revolution and its new definition of the American Dream. Demography has played an important role. Its support of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s and championing of the Immigration Act of 1965 brought a flood of minority voters into the party, including new immigrants hailing largely from Asia, Mexico and Latin America. In 1964, following passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson earned 80 percent of the non-White vote. By 2008, that number had soared to 95 percent, and racial minorities made up 40 percent of the Democratic Party.
In the 21st century, this diversity has translated into nominating an African American man and a White woman for president and now a woman of color for vice president. The Democratic convention this year was designed to celebrate diversity and to champion expanding rights and individual choice to those who have been historically overlooked. It featured people of all races and ethnicities and placed the Black Lives Matter movement on full display. Now, more than ever, Democrats are intent on showing that political and legal advances begun in the 1960s have aided the very groups that form the electoral backbone of their coalition.
For President Donald Trump, however, the American Dream has become a code phrase, another wedge issue to exploit. Republicans have based their appeal to White working-class voters on vague promises of a brighter future if Trump wins reelection coupled with ominous predictions of a dark future if he loses. “Imagine the life you want to have: one with a great job, a beautiful home and a perfect family,” Donald Trump Jr. thundered on the opening night of the Republican convention. “You can have it.” His father, however, warned workers at a Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Ohio that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, would “abolish the American Dream” and informed “Suburban Housewives” that the Democrats “will destroy your neighborhoods and your American Dream.”
This divisive rhetoric dovetails with a final significant fact: Voters are divided by their level of confidence in the future. African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed or live in poverty, yet they are far more optimistic about achieving the American Dream than many Whites. Despite facing numerous obstacles, including systemic racism, most African Americans believe their relative position in society has improved over the Jim Crow conditions of their parents and grandparents. A CNN-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in 2015 that 55 percent of African Americans and 52 percent of Hispanics believe it is easier for them to achieve the American Dream than their parents. Only 35 percent of Whites shared that sense of possibility.
The challenge now is to make that optimism more universal by enlarging the new American Dream to include everyone. Democrats need to listen to the legitimate fears of the White working class, while Republicans must do more than play on those fears as a cover for crony capitalism. Biden has declared this election as a battle for the “soul of America.” It is also a struggle to determine what the American Dream will mean for the future.
Steven M. Gillon is a senior faculty fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and teaches history at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of “America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy, Jr.” He is writing a history of the Clinton administration.