Contrasting views of “the American Dream” appeared recently in a pair of popular newspaper stories—though neither came within a hundred miles of the original sense of that enduring phrase, which is worth excavating.
Author Tara Westover endured an abusive and impoverished childhood, broke with her family, and worked multiple jobs to put herself through college, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Westover wrote that she’s often been told, “You are living proof of the American dream, that absolutely anything is possible for anybody.”
“Am I?” she asks. “Is that what the story means?”
There is nothing ennobling about poverty or hardship. Our unequal society has put increasingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of the life chances of today’s young people, who in Westover’s telling find the prospect of rising through hard work and persistence forever out of reach. “For them,” Westover says, “the American dream has become a taunt.”
Hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman, on the other hand, believes that the American Dream means little more than amassing wealth. (He’s been obsessed with the phrase for years, famously wailing, “this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on”—by “she” meaning Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’d said he and other “ultra-millionaires” should be paying a little more in taxes.) Eli Saslow’s profile of Cooperman at The Washington Post depicts a billionaire bewildered by “the attack on wealthy people.” “My life is the story of the American Dream,” he told attendees at a charity gala.
For historian James Truslow Adams, who is credited with popularizing the phrase in his 1931 book The Epic of America, the American Dream meant “a better, richer and happier society for all our citizens of every rank” [emphasis mine]. Adams was explicitly opposed to wealth inequality, speaking out directly against the great gifts and foundations of men with incomes too large to spend: “A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year…is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system. It is, perhaps, as inimical as anything could be to the American dream.”
In his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. described a vision “deeply rooted in the American dream.” Like Adams, King conceived of the American Dream as a shared egalitarian aspiration for the excellence, not of individuals but of a nation. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The American Dream once invited each of us to imagine and to realize a world of abundance, health, and happiness for everyone; in its latter, corrupted meaning, we’re encouraged to praise and imitate individuals—both the rich and the “exceptional.” The Cooperman view elevates “survival of the fittest,” the virtue of striving to leave the 99 percent behind. King sought a society that works together to achieve a just and prosperous world.
But the earliest appearance of the phrase I could find expressed caution rather than encouragement. It was published 121 years ago, in a short and sobering editorial by Edwin Lawrence Godkin, the founder of this magazine. Godkin goes Adams one better in characterizing extreme wealth as not only inimical to the American Dream but actively dangerous to the fate of the nation, and his words might have been written yesterday:
Every republic runs its greatest risk not so much from discontented soldiers as from discontented multi-millionaires [who] are very rarely, if ever, content with a position of equality.… Their natural desire is to be a class apart.… That is exactly our present position, and would be the end of the American dream.
All past republics have been overthrown by rich men, or nobles, and we have plenty of Sons of the Revolution ready for the job, and plenty of successful soldiers deriding the Constitution, unrebuked by the Executive or by public opinion.
Remember when Donald Trump rode down the golden escalator at Trump Tower and announced his intention to bring back the American Dream? Leon Cooperman is liable to have heard one thing on that terrible day, while many millions of other Americans heard the opposite, in the same stirring and familiar phrase.
Powerful political language is invariably corrupted and exploited by many actors, and that’s why it’s crucial to trace out this history of meanings. Whenever the phrase “the American Dream” is invoked, we should take care to consider whether it means the dream of a better life for a lucky few, or a better life for everyone.