Americans love a good rags-to-riches tale. We have long touted stories of the American Dream that involve grit, doggedness, and the surmounting of unbelievable odds.
We do this in large part because we want to believe anyone and everyone can "make it." We want to believe that our country makes it possible for all people, no matter their class or background, to become rich and successful.
But things are far more difficult and complex than the average Cinderella story would have you believe. We rarely (if ever) succeed on our own. The American Dream touts a form of individualism that flattens our success stories, making complex truths into narrow, self-serving fantasies.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hinted at this at a recent committee meeting in the House, noting that "it's a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by a bootstrap, by your shoelaces. It's physically impossible. The whole thing is a joke."
Many were quick to point out, in response, that Ocasio-Cortez is a former bartender now-congresswoman, and thus an exemplar of the old American Dream storyline. But Cortez rebutted this by pointing out that, despite all her hard work, "it would be narcissistic to pretend I 'bootstrapped' it alone & w/o others [sic]."
Many Americans are deeply invested in our national vision of the upwardly mobile underdog. And we do have some stories, throughout our history, of people who "made it" without any help. But to suggest that this is the norm — or even that it's the preferred means of success — would be wrong. Because we don't want American success to be bound to the whims of fate and isolated grit. We want them to have a support system to lean on, no matter where they live or who they are. Tales of tenacious individualism are insufficient to describe what the American Dream should be; we also need stories of people who received a hand up to help them beat the odds.
In his book Alienated America, Tim Carney argues that civil associations are largely responsible for health and hope in many American towns, and that their deterioration has caused the American Dream to falter (and, in many places, die out altogether). Success in our country has never been exclusively an issue of income or individualism — it is also deeply reliant on community and culture, on the religious and cultural associations that help a place (and everyone in that place) thrive.
I've been thinking about this a lot, because I have spent a good deal of time lately learning more about the lives of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather was a farmer, my great-grandmother the daughter of immigrants. They had less than five dollars when they moved into their first farmhouse post-marriage, at the beginning of the Great Depression.
My great-great-grandmother gifted some spices to her new daughter-in-law, so she had something to cook with. My great-great-great grandfather offered his grandson some farmland at a cheap price, and gave him his first team of horses. The neighbors surrounding them offered free lumber, a grain drill, hay, and five head of milk cows. They were still extremely sparse years for the couple. But thanks to all the support they received, they made it — despite the economic hardship surrounding them.
But clearly they did not make it on their own. Once they were older and more established, my great-grandparents were very deliberate about giving to other young people who needed a start, a hand up. And so this version of the "American Dream" — a connected, community-oriented system of giving and supporting, helping people in their time of need — was extended to following generations. Our entire rural culture was built on generosity — on "handouts," big and small.
Professor and sociologist Robert Nisbet once warned in his book Quest for Community that liberalism's emphasis on the "discrete individual — autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable" — emancipated man from his communal responsibilities and relationships. Without strong communal ties, only individualism (and its resultant isolation) remain. And that lonely individualism is dangerous — because grit doesn't fix things or help people, not by itself.
This is what I think Ocasio-Cortez is getting at, although she's also specifically defending government programs in her speech and following Twitter thread. There are many extremely harmful barriers to mobility and prosperity in our country, and pluck cannot — by itself — overcome those barriers. Our vision of the American Dream cannot ignore economic inequality, racism, social isolation, cultural breakdown, and the like. A kid growing up in an economically devastated neighborhood does not have the same chances of success as the kid who lives in a wealthy D.C. exurb whose parents went to Yale. And unless we can build up these communities, and foster greater supports and opportunities for the kids who feel "left behind," we will not be able to resurrect the American Dream.
I hate using that term, because it compresses something that is very complex and diverse. There are a lot of Americans whose version of the "American Dream" will not look like a single-family home with a car and a 9-to-5 job, and it would be wrong to measure their success or happiness in that way. There are a lot of Americans who will never make a six-figure salary, or move from the state where they were born, but who will still live happy and fulfilling lives. That's what happened to my great-grandparents. The "American Dream," narrowly understood, is thus a poor descriptor of success or happiness in the United States.
But we do believe that all Americans should have the chance to build a good, stable life for themselves and their families. If that is our version of the "American Dream" — if the term allows for, or even encourages, hand ups and handouts — then I think the term will be less pretentious and saccharine. It might even become attainable again.
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