Why you should care

Because we are such stuff as dreams are made on, not to mention made by and for.

Long before the “American Dream” became a slogan affixed to everything from megamalls to stump speeches, generations of Americans already subscribed to the loose set of lofty ideals regarding liberty, sacrifice and opportunity that it embodied. It was not until 1931, however, that historian James Truslow Adams gave the American catechism a name that stuck. The American Dream, Adams wrote in The Epic of America, was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The romantic conceit spread like wildfire.

Adams’ tidy summary of the nation’s core historic theme captured the imagination of the same collective psyche that it described, and the romantic conceit spread like wildfire. And as unprecedented economic growth and social change during the mid-20th century opened the doors of opportunity in America as never before, the “American Dream” slogan also flourished. But can an idea that has soared on a gale of expansion and progress endure once such winds have slowed?

There was a time when a meme did not refer to a catchphrase stamped on a photo of Willy Wonka. Such an Internet meme is nonetheless a good example of what scholars also call memes — ideas, catchphrases, symbols and other units of culture transmitted person to person, including over your Facebook feed. And from the theory of relativity to a radio jingle, a meme’s success stems from its stickiness and capacity for replication. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs,” biologist Richard Dawkins once wrote, “so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

In the realm of ideas, persuasion is the primary vehicle for making such leaps: If a meme’s version of what’s worth knowing and repeating loses its value, then, like a social media post that stops being shared, its spread stops. As Jim Cullen, chair of the history department at the Fieldston School in New York, chronicles in The American Dream, Americans have long been enamored with what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the charm of anticipated success.” But Adams’ dreamy phrase gave them a shorthand for describing and communicating it, and a powerful meme was born.

It was a meme born in a Great Depression, but reared amid one of the biggest economic booms the world has known. And even if the 1930s temporarily shattered Americans’ sense of well-being, according to Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, it did little to arrest the vast economic momentum the United States had been accumulating. By the 1930s, much of the modern world had been created: The great inventions of the late 19th century — electricity, telephones, motor vehicles, indoor plumbing — had reached most households. The New Deal programs and the nation’s immense mobilization for World War II would then transform U.S. production levels, generating what Gordon calls a “postwar cornucopia of houses, automobiles and appliances.”

The result was an unprecedented level of growth and prosperity, and the nation’s newfound consumer abundance and pathways to upward mobility would fuel a more expansive American Dream. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness now seemed destined to include a house, a two-car garage and a college education.

But somewhere around 1970, the gushing spigot of American growth slowed to a trickle. Not because of a lack of inventiveness but because, writes Gordon, “the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved.” Ever since, there has been no appreciable progress for the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. income distribution, and with the nation’s economy facing powerful headwinds to growth, from rising inequality to an aging population, Gordon believes that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Indeed, the widening gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the American Dream has informed a contentious presidential election this year, from Donald Trump, who claims “the American Dream is dead” to Bernie Sanders, who says it has “become a nightmare” for many.

Is the American Dream Dead? Key Moments in the Debate

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So what happens to a dream deferred? Some say the American Dream was always destined to fester in a zero-sum world. “The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes,” Tocqueville argued, “renders all the citizens less able to realize them.” Still, like genes, the most resilient memes adapt to suit altered circumstances, and part of the American Dream’s totemic power lies in its ambiguity, not to mention an aspirational nature that transcends events on the ground. Roughly two-thirds of the country claim that the American Dream is in decline, yet the same percentage remain confident they will attain their own American Dream.

Call it wishful thinking, but such counterintuitive optimism helped generations of Americans rebound from the Great Depression and numerous other hard times. “I think people sometimes forget,” says Cullen, that “social inequality and stagnating social mobility were not invented in 1973 or 2008.”

For the time being at least, it appears that the dream meme continues to make its leap from brain to brain in America. Whether the economic conditions necessary to ensure its ultimate survival will continue is another question.

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