The presidential campaign that began the day after the previous one ended nearly four years ago seems increasingly like a dream. I suppose it is part of the American Dream—this belief that, of all the allures and temptations the world has to offer, the greatest is the presidency of the United States; the highest calling, to run for president, and win. This element of the American Dream crystallized nearly two centuries ago in the national boast that anyone can grow up to be president of the United States, a proposition Lew Rockwell once likened to the saying that anybody can go to Hell. Yet the Dream is more comprehensive than the prospect of equal access to the high office of George Washington and Bill Clinton, making it impossible to define with any precision this generalized concept, or sentiment.
With increasing frequency these past ten months, I’ve caught myself staring at one or another of my fellow Americans, wondering whether he, she, or it is really caught up in rapt contemplation of the American Dream, or if those vacant spaces behind the eyes are simply the result of watching too many primary-night marathons on television. (Our masters entertain to tyrannize.) Truth be told, I have never caught myself daydreaming about such a thing, and neither, to my knowledge, has any of my friends or acquaintances. No one has ever heard of the English Dream, or the French Dream, or of the Italian, Russian, Greek, Egyptian, Arab, Chinese, Zulu, Hottentot, Bali (except in South Pacific), Laplander, Aboriginal, Mexican, or Pueblo Dreams. There is American Exceptionalism for you. A brilliant doctoral thesis is waiting to be written, explaining how these countries and peoples ever made it so far even as they did without a Dream—which, of course, would have to have been the American Dream, suitably garbed in diverse dress. (That, after all, is essentially what comparative cultural and political studies are about these days.)
The American Dream, as a talismanic phrase, is traceable to a book called The Epic of America, by the popular historian James Truslow Adams, published in 1931. “If,” Adams wrote,
the [accomplishments] already listed were all we [Americans] had to contribute, Americans would have made no distinctive and unique gift to mankind. But there has also been an American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.
There is a story that Adams wished to shoehorn the words “American Dream” into his title but that the editor quashed the idea, arguing that “no red-blooded American would pay $3.50 for a dream.” If he had, and if book titles could be copyrighted, every American politician from the New Deal forward would have bankrupted his campaign in the attempt to pay a permission fee every time he resorted to the term (which by its nature is entirely impervious to abuse). Cynics have noted that it was coined at just that moment in American history—the onset of the Great Depression—when a dream marked “Made in U.S.A.” was likely to be a bad dream. But the 30’s was the decade in which Americans liked to assure themselves, repeating after their Dear Leader, that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself—an illusory sentiment uplifting in those times not yet immortal, as Adams’ formulation proved itself to be.
If such a thing as the American Dream does indeed exist, then what sort of dream is it? Freudian? Jungian? Opium? Freud thought that dreams were expressions of neuroses; Jung, that they derive from archetypal images behind primeval human thought and emotion. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but some skeptics of democracy have perceived in that now-hallowed form of government opiate qualities as well. Dreams seem to be divided roughly between nightmare and wish-fulfillment ones, in which the wish-object is usually something we oughtn’t to have, or even to wish for. In between these two categories is wedged a third one, comprising dreams of a slightly sinister unreality that are not however recognized to be such until after the dreamer has awakened from them, usually at around three o’clock in the morning, Scott Fitzgerald’s dark night of the soul.
Centuries before the American Dream was dreamed of (or up), American colonists and those Europeans who wished to follow them thought and spoke of America—and later the United States—as the Land of Opportunity. (Today, the Chinese call her the Golden Country.) The Land of Opportunity was an accurate and quite unsentimental designation, one that encouraged hard thinking and careful imagining, a sense of reality that included the possibility of risk as well as of success. America as the Land of Opportunity made promises to no one, and she did not encourage dreaming, but action. America had land, she had resources, she had climate, she had distance from Europe and a formidable ocean barrier between her and potential European aggressors that made invasion difficult and improbable, and “entangling alliances” unnecessary. Tocqueville was impressed, and he made much in Democracy in America of these geographic advantages, arguing that “In the United States not legislation alone is democratic, for Nature herself seems to work for the people.” But natural freedom and nature’s richesse were incentives to hard labor, not a substitute for it, and the social and political freedoms the Americans enjoyed were the fruit of the vigilant and conscientious political and administrative efforts they made and the skills they developed, starting at the level of the New England township Tocqueville so admired for its democratic makeup, spirit, and efficiency. In Tocqueville’s New England as earlier, Americans did not invite one another to contemplate a dream of anything—including Heaven itself, which for them was a City too brilliant an object for contemplation but an elusive goal attainable by faith, prayer, good works, and hard work.
From the perspective of the 21st century, America’s “gift” to the world and to herself appears rather more to have been a curse. The American Dream is simply no way to think about a country, one’s own life, or life itself. Nor is it a way to think about human history, or the world. It is hard to know the extent to which this sentimental twaddle is taken seriously anymore in this country or abroad, or how far it is an easy conceit of American politicians and our secular Holy Rollers for democracy, providing them pious fill with which to pad out their mindless, ignorant, anti- or ahistorical speeches, articles, and books, to much of which the American public has become as thoughtlessly inured as it is to Muzak in a bustling airport. Even so, all this brain-bilge sloshing around the media cannot be healthy for anyone, including, especially, those who propagate it. We are what we read, hear, speak, write, and repeat to one another, however casually and unthinkingly. When I was a young man, I believed that only the weakest and most inferior of men were susceptible to brainwashing. I no longer believe that. Today, we Americans inhabit a world in which the only further possible act of brainwashing is mass lobotomy.
An especially dangerous element of the American Dream is the promise that life for everyone in America must and will get better and better—more money, more possessions, more freedom for everyone—and that every generation of Americans will enjoy a higher standard of living and of health than did its predecessor. It is this promise that makes the Dream so useful to politicians and so corruptive for the rest of us. Barack Obama, while running for president, has repeatedly vowed to reduce healthcare premiums by $2,500 for the average American family and to have in place a national health plan before the end of his first term in office. As the progressive crisis in healthcare has been expanding and deepening for decades, and because it was caused in the first place by the government’s intrusion on the private medical system in order to socialize it, it should be obvious to everyone that Obama’s promise is sheer demagoguery and that a “plan” coming from his hands could only worsen immeasurably an already dire situation. Similarly, after George W. Bush determined, early in his presidency, that the fulfillment of the American Dream depends on home ownership for every American, the government financial system and the national real-estate market leaped to realize this visionary quest by making home mortgages available to everyone, including people with no money and no credit. The result is the current financial crisis that threatens to destroy first the national economy, and next the international one. The American Dream, like democracy itself but to an even greater degree, is inherently inflationary, and therefore ultimately destructive. America cannot afford the American Dream. Dreaming is infinite, reality finite, yet Americans are encouraged by their so-called leaders to disregard this inconvenient fact. The moral responsibility for doing so, however, is ultimately theirs. When former Sen. Phil Gramm recently criticized public “whining” about the deplorable state of the economy, he was passing a valid moral judgment on the content of the modern American character.
By emphasizing the American Dream at the expense of the notion of a Land of Opportunity, Americans have only succeeded in diminishing the reality of both. People do not enhance their dreams by living in a dreamworld. Modern America has ceased significantly—certainly it is ceasing—to be a land of opportunity, unless by opportunity one means the ability of anyone who wishes to come here to start a Korean grocery, a Chinese laundry, a Mexican restaurant or bodega, or to establish an American base for the Russian mafia. As early as 1830-31, Tocqueville recognized a narrowing of opportunity for Americans of the highest type who he thought were constrained by democratic dogma and democratic shibboleths and prejudices. He spoke mainly of intellectual and political constraints, which have relentlessly increased since the early 19th century and to which have been added those of another order within the political and economic worlds, until today the United States has become substantially an aggregation of interlinked and interlocked controlling interests that, as Clyde Wilson rightly noted, is more typical of empire than of republican democracy.
Barack Obama, the mulatto presidential nominee sprung from the loins of a white Kansas woman and a black man from Kenya, embodies the American Dream as it has been understood at least since James Truslow Adams’ day. But a fictional character more truly represents both the Dream and the Dreamer. The Great Gatsby, today as nearly a century ago, remains the best, most penetrating, and most honest treatment of this fatal, yet quintessentially American, illusion.