The United States remains the country that foreigners criticize the most and want to move to the most. Pursuing the American dream remains a potent motivator for every wave of immigration. It is also a constant theme among this year's crop of Republican hopefuls, who criticize President Obama for tearing down national greatness and pride. Yet beyond hope and rhetoric there are some undeniable facts that counter our embrace of the American dream.
First, the dream was based on democratic equality. Yet the trend has been for certain votes -- those cast by the rich, the influential, the corporate connected -- to count more than the average citizen's. In some quarters the dominance of lobbyists in Washington indicates that American democracy is for sale. However you view that proposition, there's no doubt that Congress is stuffed with millionaires, lawyers, prosecutors, and soon-to-be-lobbyists.
Second, the American dream was based on opportunity. The Horatio Alger climb from rags to riches is our national archetype. But as it stands, other countries, mostly in Europe, offer greater social mobility, meaning that the ladder is harder to climb in America than we like to believe. As evidence we see income inequality that is skyrocketing, along with protests from the 99% that the 1% at the top have rigged the game in their favor.
Third, the American dream flourished in a melting pot of immigrant cultures. Each wave of immigrants arrived as strangers in a strange land, but by the second generation their children were assimilated into the cultural mainstream. Historians tell us that ethnic divisions have always been strong, despite the cultural ideal of the melting pot. Now, instead of pitched street battles between Irish and Italians fighting over jobs and power, we have social divisions baked into the cake, as it were. De facto segregation keeps African-Americans isolated in pockets of crime, drugs, and unemployment. Immigrants are looked upon suspiciously by the right wing. Selected ethnic groups, such as Muslims, are considered as almost permanent outsiders.
There are other ways in which the American dream has been undercut. If that dream includes the doctrine of peace, in reality we are the most militarized nation on earth. We develop the latest means of mechanized death, and lead the world in arms dealing. If the dream includes tolerance for all minorities, the almost rabid opposition to gay marriage and the barely disguised racism of voter ID laws cast doubt on that ideal.
What remains intact and most hopeful in the American dream is our flexibility, ingenuity, and willingness to change. Progress cannot be halted, and a new American dream is beginning to cohere. If the brightest trends bear fruit, this country is demographically at a great advantage over Europe, Russia, and China. As those societies grow old, America's influx of immigrants assures that we will have younger workers. Some economists see American manufacturing being reborn as costs in China rise. This week General Motors regained its place as the largest auto maker in the world. The high price of oil has made the extraction of alternate fuel sources more viable. Becoming oil independent is an actual possibility, and motivated by the threat of global warming, the trend toward non-fossil fuels has a fighting chance.
The new American dream isn't simply economic. Once we regain our optimism (a tall order but inevitable, I think) the basis for renewed prosperity is already in place: the GDP in 2011 was higher than before the recession began. Forward movement depends on keeping a progressive-minded president in place, but this post isn't about that. It's about realism as it intertwines with myth. The two aren't enemies. It needs to be part of the progressive agenda to heal the old American dream while giving the new one all the encouragement we can.