The American dream has always been an amorphous concept, something that could be squished into whatever shape the speaker needs to create a generic sensation of good cheer and patriotism — whatever those are meant to be. But the contained emotions center around the belief that we are on the side of good, that we wish to maximize the exercise of rights and the growth of economies, that each generation will live a better life than their parents enjoyed.
This is a lovely vision, and it would be all the more beautiful if we could bring it to reality. But so often, we are satisfied by the dream and unwilling to put forth the work necessary to fulfill it.
I am not claiming that we have made no progress. The principles of the Constitution were an extraordinary statement in human history. The ideas were moving about Enlightenment circles during the period, but we were an early adopter, and we have used that document to expand our understanding of human rights to the point that we now forbid slavery and accept that women have the right to participate in the running of their society and that same-sex couples deserve the same benefits as heterosexuals, among much else. But the dream of a nation that is a force for progress can only be sustained by continued progress.
And over the last several decades, our efforts to build a more perfect union have stalled. To quote the words of the prophet, “It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit. It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it.” The American dream, whatever it was, has died. The question of the moment is whether we can bring it back to life.
If this resurrected dream is not to be a zombie, we have to come to a clear and broad understanding of what we have in mind. And the dream will have to include everyone, not merely the favored few.
This fundamentally means that the dream cannot exclude anyone who is not white, male, heterosexual, or any of the other characteristics that were normative back when Trump supporters thought America was great. The dream then was too restrictive, based on the ancient assumption that for the few to live well, their group must be defined conservatively, and the many must serve to keep things going. That may have been inescapable in the days when muscle power drove production and when a high rate of reproduction was required to have guarantee that society would last into the next generation through the many dangers that childhood was subject to. Today, machines, intelligent or otherwise, do an increasing percentage of labor, and overpopulation is a much greater threat. No rational argument remains for defining some people as out of bounds when it comes to the running and shaping of our society.
Just as the dream will be a nightmare if we persist with bigotries based on characteristics of birth, it would also be a horror to hoard up wealth in the hands of the few. The notion of a self-made billionaire or even millionaire depends on ignoring the many factors that go into the creation of riches. Even if wealth is not inherited, an idea — which will be based on the work of many who came before — must be translated into goods or services by workers, must be transported across roads or oceans, and must be sold to buyers who themselves must have money of their own. The right wing obsession with a tiny fraction of the economy, with protecting the transfer of wealth to the already wealthy blinds them and many others to economic justice — to sharing the dream with everyone.
That a resurrected dream feels more like fantasy is reinforced by America’s two major parties. Republicans praise liberty, and Democrats preach equality, while both ensure that only the privileged few can enjoy the blessings of our nation. Bringing our common dream back to life will require that we stand up against the establishments of both parties. They do not work for us, and we should stop working for them. This might need a general strike or regular protests, but it also includes a refusal to vote for their anointed candidates. At heart, it means seeing through the propaganda of the powerful to the needs and goals of the people.