The American Dream, having remained salient in the national consciousness for almost the entirety of America’s history, has generated an unshakable paradigm for economic success that pedestals individual agency and resilience. Its durability lies, arguably, in a genuine yet uniquely ethereal sense of tangibility — the result of a paradoxical coexistence between understanding the impossibility of extreme social mobility and a veracity from observing and hearing from those who appear to have genuinely achieved the dream in its purest form — that imbues in its believers a blind sort of prospective hope and confidence.
Prominently, the children of successful immigrants, or of parents with proximity to such cases of rags-to-riches success, grow up bombarded with real-life examples of this dream manifested, which further solidifies this pipeline into reality.
A deeper look into the meritocratic ideology of the American Dream reveals tragic, deeply-rooted consequences on national attitudes pertaining to injustice. Implicitly, it pardons and rationalizes our moral dilemmas regarding inequality in this nation by ascribing inequality as a natural outcome of individual shortcomings. Indeed, the lens of meritocracy leads us to a palliative belief that the most disenfranchised people “deserve” their circumstances, absolving us of our responsibility to campaign for and erect policy that seek to resolve systematic inequalities that act as a barrier to equal opportunity.
While the societally unprogressive inclinations of the American Dream may suggest that it is an ideology predominantly possessed and piloted by the already elite, closely examining the fundamental magnetism of this dream suggests a different perspective.
Alternatively, for disenfranchised immigrants and natives alike, to believe in this dream is often a necessity — a way to maintain control and responsibility in a world where justice repeatedly does not prevail, and where fairness is not ubiquitous. When considered, it is a choice that becomes obvious: to believe there exists logical explanations for failure, or to believe that agency over our own futures is so fraught and subsumed by the inert privilege of the few so that even our strongest efforts will never substantiate worthiness of equal luxury and privilege. To acquiesce to the latter is a realization perhaps as lucid as it is damning, and one that snowballs into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: One which reduces effort to nothingness, and says that the American Dream, in fact, is not a bridge that can conquer social stratum.
And, furthermore, that no such bridge exists.
Of course, then, to believe in this dream is often an imperative of self-preservation. Yet, it is difficult to argue that there is no value in believing in one’s own resilience and hard work as a legitimate path to success. To rid the American Dream of any shred of legitimacy would not just be naive; it would also require us to discard entirely its impact and historic roots, particularly in the cases of many immigrants to America with little money and connections who have, in fact, been able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.
However, the issue with the myth of meritocracy the American Dream propagates has never been its powerful ability to imbue hope and motivation in people seeking a better life. Instead, the issue is its implicit guidance that presses us to understand failure as a product of individual shortcoming, and to scorn people in less fortunate social positions as people who simply have an inferior drive to succeed. The American Dream stratifies communities of people seeking a better life and discourages solidarity by assuredly associating any advantages in economic prosperity with harder or smarter work. It drives us to understand our success by comparing our work to peers rather than recognizing important factors that lay beyond our control — racial, gendered, or economic prejudices that tear opportunities from the hands of even the most hardworking.
Little is more exemplary of the continued salience of the American Dream than the general attitudes towards homelessness in America, particularly from those of higher economic status; specifically, we find that many wrongly attribute homelessness to a lack of effort in chasing a better life. Irrespective of the many circumstances that make it almost impossible to propel oneself out of homelessness — that the cities in which homelessness is most prevalent are also the cities with the highest property values, that the minimum wage jobs most plausibly available to homeless people are hardly enough to keep food on the table, let alone pay rent, and that it is essentially a requisite of more sustainable jobs to first spend tens of thousands of dollars on a degree — such reasons fade into the background of consideration. Indeed, the very idea of the American Dream has achieved a reverent quality where anything is possible. Any sense of sympathy and nationalistic group solidarity becomes definitively absent, as homelessness itself, within a lens of meritocracy, is un-American.
How exactly the myth prevails, then, is a mystery worth exploring. If in the streets of every major city are living proofs of the people it has failed, and every poor housing project is home to scores of people who work 10-hour days six days a week and still maintain a barely sustainable life, how can we continue to delude ourselves into believing hard work is the sole contributing factor?
In the interest of understanding success as derived from superior intellect and work ethic, severe contortions and obfuscations of logic are necessary to understand poverty and misfortune with the same lens. To those entrenched deeply enough in this meritocratic ideology, one should somehow still find the time to pursue the requisite education for better paying jobs while working 60-hour weeks and taking care of family. To fail to do so, in their eyes, is “not working hard enough”.
Though no doubt propagated heavily by our political leaders, this meritocratic message is also one that has retained its hold by taking advantage of the connectedness of our communities. It remains alive through extrapolation and proximity; for one, through children hearing stories of their immigrant parents beating impossible odds to achieve tremendous success. Yet, the word-of-mouth nature of such stories makes the American Dream highly susceptible to exaggeration and overly-personal attribution of success.
It’s true that many truly have achieved the purest form of the American Dream, to come from nothing to something, but yet what lies untold in such retellings of success is the luck, connections, and education — no matter how little — that ultimately cross with hard work to together create social mobility and success.