What Is the American Dream Today?
Has It Drifted From the Vision of Our Founding Fathers?
Before looking at what the American Dream is today, we need to look at its roots. Our Founding Fathers introduced the revolutionary idea that each person's desire to pursue their idea of happiness was not self-indulgence, but a necessary driver of a prosperous society. They created a government to defend that right for everyone.
The pursuit of happiness became the driver of the entrepreneurial spirit that defines the American free market economy.
The Declaration of Independence protects your opportunity to improve your life, no matter who you are. It boldly proclaims:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Of course, at that time "everyone" only meant white property-owners. Over time, Congress extended the right to slaves, women, and people without property. President Abraham Lincoln extended the American Dream to slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. President Woodrow Wilson extended it to women by supporting the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That extended the dream by protecting workers from discrimination by race, color, religion, sex (including in pregnancy), or national origin. In 1967, Congress extended those rights to those older than 40. President Barack Obama established the right to the pursuit of happiness through marriage regardless of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court supported that right in 2015.
How the American Dream Changed
Throughout U.S. history, the definition of happiness has changed as well. In the Roaring 20s, it shifted from the Founders' dream of protecting opportunities to acquiring material things. The novel "The Great Gatsby" best exemplified this shift. Its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, both defined the aspirations of the age and warned of its consequences. He said happiness based upon greed was not attainable because someone else always had more. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression proved him right.
After the Depression, many presidents supported the idea of the American Dream as a pursuit of material benefits.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined an Economic Bill of Rights in his 1944 State of the Union address. He defined the pursuit of happiness as decent housing, a good job, education, and health care. FDR realized that people who were hungry, homeless, and sick were more likely to succumb to strong social forces. He worried about the fascism, Communism, and Socialism movements that were sweeping the world at that time. FDR's Unfinished Second Bill of Rights was drawn up to address domestic security after World War II.
President Truman's Fair Deal expanded the Dream to include entitlement. If you worked hard and played by the rules, the government should guarantee financial security, education, health care, and a home.
Many national leaders continued the shift set in place by FDR and Truman. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush supported homeownership as part of the Dream. While running for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton proposed her American Dream Plan. It included homeownership, college, retirement, and health insurance for children. Obama extended the right to health care with the Affordable Care Act.
Did the Great Recession Create a New American Dream?
Instead, many are turning to a new definition of the American Dream that better reflects the values of the country for which it was named. For example, the Center for a New American Dream envisions
"... a focus on more of what really matters, such as creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature, and spending time with family and friends."
Financial adviser Suze Orman described the new American Dream as one
"... where you actually get more pleasure out of saving than you do spending. It's a dream where you live below your means but within your needs. You are not spending every penny, you are not impressing people. You are living a life where you can sleep at night and you are actually happy."
How Climate Change Could Affect the American Dream
Climate change is making many Americans question the costs of unbridled growth. Consumption has exhausted natural resources that could lead to the sixth mass extinction. For example, deforestation has eliminated habitats for many endangered species. That costs $4.5 trillion each year through the loss of biodiversity. Half of all pharmaceuticals comes from these genetic resources. It also kills trees needed to absorb dangerously high levels of greenhouse gases.
The chart below shows how the average global temperature has changed since 1880.
As a result, many global warming solutions advocate lower levels of consumption. They ask for more natural preserves on land and in the oceans. Some experts warn that this will reduce economic growth and lead to a lower standard of living. Many people feel their vision of the American Dream is threatened by solutions like the Green New Deal.
But if nothing is done, global warming is slowing growth anyway. Between 2007 and 2017, extreme weather, health risks, sea level rise, and food inflation, has cost the U.S. government $350 billion. If the average temperature rises above 2 degrees Celsius, 98% of coral reefs would die off. That would cost the global economy $1 trillion each year.
If the global temperature rises by 2.5%, then the world’s gross domestic product would fall 15% from 2010 levels. If it rises 3 C, global GDP would fall 25%. That’s the same as during the Great Depression, but it would be permanent.
The vision of the American Dream based on materialism has hit its zenith. A new vision is called for if we are to survive this new crisis.
Is the New Dream Really New?
There is no need to create a new American Dream from scratch. Instead, let's return to our Founding Fathers' vision. All people have an equal and inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness. Federal law protects this right.
The Declaration of Independence says nothing about any type of lifestyle. It does not define what happiness should look like. Instead, it seeks to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to pursue their personal vision. It also promotes faith in private free enterprise as a way to pursue that happiness. The Founding Fathers could not have envisioned an American Dream that didn’t include our right to clean air, water, and abundant natural resources. But those rights are also “self-evident.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Great Gatsby,” Scribner, 2004.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. “State of the Union Message to Congress, January 11, 1944,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
ABC News. “Suze Orman on the ‘New’ American Dream,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
ABC News. “Suze Orman on the ‘New’ American Dream,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
Independent. “$5,000,000,000,000: The Cost Each Year of Vanishing Rainforest,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
The Guardian. “Loss of Coral Reefs Caused by Rising Sea Temperatures Could Cost $1Tn Globally,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
Nature. “Large Potential Reduction in Economic Damages Under UN Mitigation Targets,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.
Vox. “What Genuine, No-Bullshit Ambition on Climate Change Would Look Like,” Accessed Dec. 12, 2019.