The American Dream Needs a New Narrative -- Beyond Left and Right

Jul 14, 2011Adam Gluck

flag-150 There's a lot of talk lately about American dream. But what is it, really? We asked our Roosevelt Institute summer interns to give us their perspective. Here, University of Chicago rising sophomore Adam Gluck ponders the tension between freedom and equality in the Land of Opportunity.

Every time some catastrophe or even bad event happens in our country, liberal and conservative pundits write an exciting, "new" article asking the question, "is the American dream dead?" This American Dream seems always to represent the ideology of the author, informed by an assumption about the opportunities that the United States should provide. There's usually something about how the opposing group is "destroying your dreams."

And honestly, who wants their dreams crushed?

For me, though, the dream never seems that compelling. Criteria like "home ownership" or "freedom from taxation" don't really speak to my imagination. Would people come from all over the world to live in America on the image of collective housing? That's a policy, not a narrative. It's an objective, not a dream. It misses what it is about America that has attracted people here throughout history. This narrative includes the artist and the CEO, the capitalist and the academic. And it centers on the idea of America as a land of opportunity -- a place where you don't have to stay in the class you're born into, but have a chance for upward mobility if you work hard enough or have the natural ability.

The upward mobility promise explains why freedom rhetoric is often more compelling than equality rhetoric. To many, opportunity and freedom are one in the same. There's a strong belief that you have the opportunity to do what you will if you have the freedom to do it. But just because you have the political freedom to, say, buy a house, can you necessarily do it? Obviously, no. Opportunity is something more than just freedom. It necessarily involves a measure of equality.

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But we still don't take the equality part of the equation enough into account. This is perhaps why the recent behavior of the banks has led to less general uproar and action than expected. The banks wanted something -- huge profits -- and they got it through a deregulated system that gave them opportunities to make risky bets with depositors' money. Perhaps it was immoral how they went about it. But to some, those record-breaking profits also demonstrate what's great about America: if you want to make lots of money, you can do it. The problem comes in because the freedom of banks to speculate as much as they wanted ended up reducing possibilities for the average person. Credit froze. The financial meltdown caused mass layoffs. By increasing freedom for the banks we ultimately reduced the opportunities available for the vast majority of Americans. This is something worth examining.

In response to another era when the few seized opportunities that restricted them for the many, the early Progressive Movement was born. It was compelling because it provided people a renewed sense that upward mobility could again become possible -- that America was not just a land of opportunity for a handful of wealthy people, but for all.

Progressives support an egalitarian vision of opportunity in which you have freedom because there's a strong social safety net and public institutions to ensure equal access to opportunity. They find it hard to see equality in an economic system where CEOs make 300 times as much as their employees. Conservatives counter with their belief in a free market which is supposed to reward people based on what they deserve -- in their view a "truer" form of equality. They worry that government-mandated equality would reduce their possibilities, such as access to good doctors for their families.

It seems the answer is somewhere in the middle. Equality must play some part in freedom, and freedom must play some part in equality. Equality, and the defenses it implies, ensures that people are not dominated by the market and controlled by their employers. Freedom ensures that people can do what they will without too much intervention. While equality ensures that people have the opportunity to do what they will, freedom implies that people are able to pursue the opportunities that are available. Both are critical.

The point for progressives is this: As labor fails, and as government programs meant to establish avenues towards upward mobility fail, our land filled with "unlimited" opportunity fails also. When the wealthy secure their dreams at the cost of the opportunity of others to pursue ours -- like securing a loan or going to college -- then belief in the American dream dies for many.

Conservatives have equated opportunity with freedom, and that has cost us. For now, then, the ball is in the court of progressives to inject just the right amount of equality in the equation, so that America can once again be the land where the dream of opportunity exists for the many, and not just the few.

Adam is currently the communications intern at the Roosevelt Institute New York office and a student at The University of Chicago.

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