For all the talk these days of porous borders and external threats to the United States, the core of our sense of security and identity as a nation has always come from within. What's surprising, perhaps, is that it derives less from our vaunted democracy or our freedoms than it does from that rather nebulous notion we call the American dream.
The dream is the glue that keeps us all together. It's the vague promise that our lot will get better over time that gives us the patience to endure whatever indignities we suffer at the moment. It's the belief that our kids will have a better chance in life than we do that keeps the many elements of this diverse, highly competitive society from ultimately tearing each other apart. More than anything else, it's the fabled dream that fuses hundreds of millions of separate, even competing individual dreams into one national collective enterprise.
But what happens when too many Americans stop believing in that dream? Last week's ABC News/Yahoo News poll revealed that today, only half of us think the American dream — which the pollsters defined as "if you work hard you'll get ahead" — still holds true, while 43% said that it had once been true. That only 4% of respondents thought that there was never such a dream testifies to the power of the phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, attitudes varied from group to group. Respondents with higher incomes tended to still believe in the dream more than those with lower incomes. Similarly, the college educated were bigger believers than the less educated. Independent voters believe less than either Democrats or Republicans, and Americans who live in the West are significantly more likely to believe than those in the Rust Belt. Reflective perhaps of varying levels of expectations — or sense of entitlement — nonwhites are more likely to believe in the dream than are whites.
This isn't the first opinion survey whose findings suggest that our social glue has begun to lose its grip. And, significantly, the signs began to arise well before the Great Recession. In 2006, a CNN poll found that over half of respondents thought the American dream was no longer attainable for most Americans. Way back in booming 1995, a Business Week/Harris poll found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the American dream had become harder to achieve in the previous decade, and three-quarters believed that achieving the dream would be harder yet in the coming decade.
The fact that belief in the achievability of the dream was slipping in good times indicates that our attitudes toward it are shaped by more than objective economic reality.
Writers such as William Greider have suggested that the notion that a family's material well-being will only get better over time is simply not sustainable. Gregg Easterbrook has written that, in recent years, the dream itself went into overdrive. At some point, it was no longer enough for people to keep up with the Joneses; they had to "call and raise" them.
Still, the latest dream data seem mostly driven by objective data. For nearly three decades, economic inequality has been widening, and some studies are suggesting that aside from the immigrant experience, the U.S. is not nearly as economically mobile — the ability of people to move up the ladder within a lifetime or from one generation to the next — as we would like to believe.
Though a certain level of income inequality is necessary for competition — without it, there'd be little incentive to strive — too much not only diminishes the size of the middle class, which is something like the nation's social rudder, it challenges the very idea of ourselves as a nation.
In the face of all this, it's gratifying to report that in most respects, the American experiment is alive and well. Yes, the strain shows — in incivility, in nativism, in howls of protest from those who have something to gain from disunity. But nothing has snapped, at least not beyond repair. (As one wag pointed out, nowadays "tarred and feathered" is just a phrase; it used to be real.)
With the glue of the dream holding at 50%, it's nothing to cheer about. And if that number falls further, it could pose as great a menace as any outside enemy. Which should lead us to believe that we must restore our inner core rather than fret about external threats.