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Defining the American Dream for a New Generation

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Kaushal Gokare

Ms. Stroligo

AP English Language and Composition

10 January 2018

Defining the American Dream for a New Generation

                The United States of America was founded on a single, core promise: to preserve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This simple phrase, written in the Declaration of Independence, provides the basis for one of the most discernible features of the country, a feature that has come to be known as the American Dream.  The American Dream is the belief that anyone from an abandoned orphan to a hopeful immigrant can succeed or “make it.” Analyzed economically, it allows upward social mobility and equal opportunity for all while giving predisposed advantage to none.  And America has often fulfilled its promise, most exemplified in the nation’s golden age after World War II.  During that time, millions of young people moved up to the middle-class and some advanced even further; however, as with all else that is good, these years are coming to an end.  Upward mobility is being turned upside down, and wages are not increasing as fast as inflation.  Thus, in order to reduce scrutiny upon themselves, the successful have redefined the American Dream from being individual “rags-to-riches” stories to meaning general, nationwide economic success, and the interpretation of the past will continue to wane steadily until it is as obsolete as the hope it once provided.

                Naturally, the question arises as to when and to what extent this new definition has taken hold in modern society.  The truth, however unpleasant, is that success has been reserved for the successful for generations precisely because of their redefining of the American Dream.  Due to their control of policy, media, and entertainment, Americans now identify individual prosperity as being one and the same with national prosperity and vice versa.  Thus, it becomes easier for the majority of Americans to accept their status as being a consequence of market forces beyond their control.  Instead of working towards wealth, Americans now view the wealthy as a symbol that the nation is doing well, and thus, they are too.  However, while this unchallenged acceptance of one’s social status is certainly dangerous, it is undoubtedly rooted in some shreds of reality.  Today more than ever, there are many factors beyond people’s control that limits their ability to succeed, and this all traces its roots to the wealthy shifting the public perception of the coveted American Dream.  For example, in order to discredit claims that the American Dream is dead, affluent people often cite America’s continuing global success as a reason why Americans can still individually succeed; however, as mentioned, this only points to the nation’s relative wellbeing, but it does little to address the individual concerns of the vast majority of Americans.  Many times, logical concerns brought forth from the public are deflected as being indicative of “socialism” or “laziness” as seen in “By Our Own Bootstraps” by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm from their book Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think (Cox and Alm 1).  Instead of addressing such concerns, prominent people often simply say that these ideas are invalid in the 21st century world of capitalism.  “Rather than ask such questions,” they argue, “these loafers should take control of their situation.”  In reality, concerns about a widening income gap are not trivial; they reflect an economic trend that benefits a few at the cost of the many.  This deflection is not simply hypothetical; as mentioned, it is seen throughout the media culture, specifically because these outlets would like Americans to think that the American Dream of the 20th century is still alive and well.  For example, in Shikha Dalmia’s article “Long Live the American Dream,” she argues that the American Dream is still strong in society, but her arguments are based on reasons that almost never address individual success.  She bases her claims on vague reasons such as “America’s tangible and ‘intangible’ infrastructure” or nonsensical ones like “America wastes no talent” (Dalmia 1), but all of this is dedicated to addressing global competitiveness, which is the premise of her entire essay.  In fact, of her five “reasons,” only one even mentions individual wealth (Dalmia 2).  The truth is that global competitiveness is simply not what the American Dream stood for; the American Dream was a symbol of hope for the local factory worker or the young orphan or the immigrant farmer, not an economist who hoped that U.S.A. would edge out China in the quarterly tech report.  At least this is what the phrase used to signify: today, as seen in articles such as those by Dalmia, it has come to incorporate the nation’s global standing and strength, oftentimes with little concern for those who created the dream in the first place… the common man.

        This new definition has brought on a new age for American capitalism and nationalism, one in which individual hope is nearly nonexistent and deemed unimportant.  In essence, this new meaning of the American Dream - one of national rather than individual economic standing - has developed into a system in which upward economic mobility for most people has become far more difficult if not impossible.  As Paul Krugman from The Nation writes in his article “The Death of Horatio Alger,” “recent research [shows that] social mobility in the United States (which was never as high as legend had it) has declined considerably over the past few decades.”  This same research illustrates “a drastic increase in income and wealth inequality” (Krugman 1).  However, what trumps all of these travesties the most is the efforts made by those at the top of the system to keep themselves at the top of the system.  Krugman exposes the sheer magnitude of the issue by delving into how pervasive this issue really is, and it affects most Americans in more ways than they would like to imagine.  As Krugman highlights, if the elite truly were trying to maintain their status, they would surely take a few indisputable actions: They would “get rid of the estate tax,” reduce corporate and high-bracket taxes, “cut back on healthcare for the poor,” reduce funding for public education, and “privatize government functions” (Krugman 1 & 2).  Not shockingly, these actions are the very same ones taken by many politicians and influential persons in recent decades, and they are designed with the sole intention of helping the elite class, while the rest of the population is none the wiser.  These simple acts have had grave implications on the common interpretation of the American Dream.  Whereas focusing on global competitiveness and national economic power deflects reasonable concerns about the state of the American Dream, like in Dalmia’s article, this control of policy takes the deflection one step further: it makes such concerns completely obsolete.  In other words, those who claim that the classical American Dream is still prevalent at least recognize the traditional definition of the idea, even if they choose to ignore the fact that its presence is waning; however, influential persons, like those that Krugman mention, are actually changing public perception of the Dream through their actions.  These actions not only ignore the classical American Dream’s cries for help, they extinguish them.  The far-reaching control of the wealthy has changed the dream to mean something entirely different then what it did twenty years ago.  As Krugman mentions, people today are able to completely ignore the undeniably palpable “caste society” that clouds our nation by convincing themselves that the growth of the national economy is emblem of the success of the “common man” when, in reality, this could not be farther from the truth.  The success of the nation is due to the increasing success of the top few percent while “the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers actually fell by 7 percent” in the past few decades (Krugman 1).  Essentially, the wealthy succeed while the majority of Americans gain nothing.  Today, the American Dream implies that rather than compete with the wealthy, the public must follow the wealthy, and instead of a public uproar, many Americans cheer, believing this is all just a part of the “American Dream.”

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