The American Dream is an attitude more than it is a specific search. It is not a Google operation. It is much bigger than that.
In researching our September trend report, “American Dream in the Balance,” we spoke with Michael Ford, founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Prior to founding the center, Ford spent nearly 40 years in government, politics and corporate work, serving in nine presidential campaigns and many other gubernatorial, congressional and mayoralty races. Ford discussed the emotional foundations of the Dream and why it endures, conflicting attitudes toward immigrants and changing perceptions of America’s position on the world stage.
What does the American Dream mean today, and how has that changed from the past?
First of all, the American Dream wasn’t named until the Great Depression, but it clearly predated that. The American Dream, when you get down to it, is really not a search for a thing, it is an attitude. It is a willingness to struggle, based on the probability that you have a chance to achieve. And that attitude hasn’t changed.
What has changed are the various and sundry things you might mention along the way, or the way you might characterize your ambitions. But the fundamental aspect of the Dream is about striving, it is an attitude about possibility. That is really it. And especially now, in the middle of a presidential campaign, in the middle of a sudden formal recognition that the middle class is dissipating, the instinct we have to conflate the American Dream with the state of the economy is excessive.
Why is that?
Because it is not true. And it is very hard for us to understand that, partially because companies have been advertising, campaigns have been talking, candidates have been wooing all around the American Dream, and that is a context that the American people don’t really listen to, because they have written off, for the time being, their trust in institutions and they are carrying their own load right now.
Over the years, we have always begun with a “right track”/“wrong track” question [on surveys]. And the “wrong track” has been terrible for the last three or four years, but the confidence in reaching or having reached the American Dream usually equals the wrong track number, or exceeds it. So there is no connection. Yes, things are terrible. Yes, wages have been stagnant since the ’70s. Yes, there is unemployment. All those things are true, and that is reflected in the “wrong track” number. But this basic attitude, this belief in possibility, still resides in many American hearts, and that number always exceeds the “wrong track” number.
You mention that the Dream is fundamentally about striving—what do you think Americans are striving for today?
It is a very general but consistent answer, and that is, “Making a better or creating a better life for my family.” Now what that means will change with the times. But there are fundamentally unifying thoughts here. The persistent strong categories are “To create a better life for my family,” freedom, the idea of opportunity and financial security, which I distinguish from wealth. Because wealth, we are talking about the 1 percent or the 5 percent. Financial security means, “I am paying the bills, and I am putting a little bit away for college for my kids.”
In this context, what does the term “family” mean, and what does “a better life” involve?
The first part, in some respects it almost looks like cocooning, and this is a consequence of the persistent distrust in our national institutions, which previously could have been viewed as partners in Dream achievement. Now they are simply disregarded. Rather than despised, they are just not part of the equation—so the circle of your Dream is your immediate family, it is your circle of friends, it is your extended family. Everyone has their own additions and subtractions, but it is, in many ways, a cocooned idea.
“We have been abandoned by institutions, we are on our own,” and that augments this striving attitude. It is us against whomever. So it isn’t as large as your state or as large as your city but as large as your personal circle, that is how large it is.
And what are people striving for?
Everybody is different. It would be impossible to have 300 million people all wanting the same thing, and if they did, nobody would get it. The unity is that they are trying, that they are striving, they are defiant about it, and that is the story here. It isn’t whether they are spiritual or material or political; they are decreasingly political, I will say that. The faith that Americans used to have that the government was their partner, that the government was competent, that started to collapse in the ’70s, and now it is down to an abysmal number that is almost de minimis.
So, it is not political. People disbelieve the public people who talk about the American Dream. As a speechwriter, I can say, no matter what audience it is, no matter what your partisan inclination is or how extreme it is, you can go into any audience and talk about the American Dream and heads will nod. It is a unifying experience. And again, I would stress that the American Dream is an attitude more than it is a specific search. It is not a Google operation. It is much bigger than that.
What role does immigration play in all of this?
That infusion of new people, of diversity, of new ideas, that is what keeps the flame alive, and we have persistently seen that the strongest supporters are the most recent arrivals. It doesn’t go away—the Mayflower people still have this dream—but it is clearly fed by and is felt most strongly among immigrants. Immigrants don’t come here to acquire our values, they bring them. They bring the willingness to strive, the willingness to work, the willingness to ride through a storm.
However, we found a streak of resentment toward immigrants. Why is this?
I think it is a raw nerve for this reason: There is no American who didn’t come from immigrants somewhere in the family tree, other than Native American Indians. So we all feel this double-edged sword here. We know we wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t come and fought whatever fights there were for acceptance, for survival, so we have that honorable view packed away. But in terms of new immigrants, here it is divided. For example, in focus groups, when people just talk, the misperception of things available to immigrants is stunning.
The belief that the government gives them a house, guarantees them a job, guarantees them a loan to start a business, all these mythological things are clearly woven into a fearful backdrop that we have. It is clear to Anglo-Americans that they will soon be a minority, if they are not already. And there are some who are afraid of that. There are others who couldn’t care less. We can see it right now, in different states, where the fear of immigration is so great that it is nearly irrational.
On the other hand, when we go through the survey, when we ask directly, “Do you think immigration is important to sustaining the American Dream?” 60 percent-plus always agree, and that is connected to our own history. We all have it. So there is this competition within us between respecting and honoring the past and fearing the future. To me it is less immigration than it is economic uncertainty, but you are right, there is resentment, there is concern, and it is not hard to understand. It is hard to agree with, but it is not hard to understand.
Do you think the country still represents a “Land of Opportunity”?
Obviously the idea of opportunity is fundamental to the whole idea of the Dream, of the striving. Now, if you work hard, the possibility that something is going to happen that is good is obviously increased. Opportunity is not opening the newspaper to the classified section and seeing, “We would like you to call us because we have a job for you that will pay a million dollars.” It isn’t like that. It is just that you live in an environment where people compete, but the trick is, they often have expectations, and that raises everybody’s game. And that is one thing that immigration does—it raises everybody’s game.
When people are angry that immigrants are taking American jobs, what they are saying is, “Immigrants are more qualified, they know the job better, perhaps they are better educated.” You don’t get a job because you are white, in America. You get a job because you are the guy who is qualified. And if immigrants are taking jobs, that is telling you something about our own situation. And that is hard to hear, I suppose, but again, it is a double-edged sword. On one side, there is honorable history that is unavoidably connecting all of us. On the other side, there is fear that “I will lose what I have, I won’t be able to find something new,” because it was taken by a new person. So that is the conflict.
How are systemic factors like unemployment and personal debt impacting people’s perception of America’s status on the global stage?
We hear in focus groups how people believe that everybody in the world wants to move here and we have to keep them out. It is just not true; it is less true than even 10 years ago. That is a result of a number of things, not the least of which is how unwelcoming we are, but beyond that, it is also true that the world is catching up … and for us to think everybody wants to come here is just chauvinistic, it is not true.
I think younger Americans realize our place in the world is not what it was for their grandparents. It is certainly not what it was for the World War II generation, which had something to be proud of. Not only in terms of being part of a greater solution to world problems, but that is when the American economy really took off for the first time, and that was a generation that had a different set of circumstances. Young Americans today are more aware of a balance in the world, more aware of the fact that whatever we achieve, we have to earn, and that isn’t only for you and me, that is for the country.
The idea of exceptionalism, that we are better than everybody else … it is almost a defensive response against decline. Younger people are much more tuned in to the reality of the world, and they don’t feel dishonored or ashamed, they just realize that the world is changing and what we get, we have got to earn.
We’re seeing a generation of global citizens emerge. What does this mean for the “American-ness” of the Dream?
There are certain things about America that are attractive to some people around the world, other things that are anathema, but as Americans, we still don’t go abroad and study as much as we should. The largest group of non-American students who study in the United States are Chinese. And the number of Americans that go to China to study, you could count on your fingers and toes. We are still not participating in the world as much as we should outside our own little technological cocoon.
I don’t think Americans view themselves as nationalistically as they used to, especially younger people, but it is still there. There is still a pride, but there is a pride in your hometown NFL team too. That is not going away. And neither is pride in one’s country. There is more acceptance of the value of other cultures, of other countries. Younger people reflect this, and I think that is great. The American Dream has gone indoors for a while. We are proud of being Americans, but we are not necessarily proud of everything America does, which is part of the letdown of trust in our institutions.
One of the most prevalent descriptions of the American Dream is a home with a white picket fence. Do you think this still has any bearing?
The idea of a home with a white picket fence is an invention. It is a consequence of a huge surge in suburban housing after World War II—it was the creation of a market, the real estate industry, the mortgage industry, the building industry. These people are immensely invested in this comfortable idea that if you own a home, you have made it. The problem is, while advertising has sunk into our minds, it is clearly not the truth today. We know that 1 in 4 Americans who can afford to pay their mortgage are willing to consider a strategic walkaway.
There are more people trying to get out of their mortgage than there are trying to buy a house, and we know that particularly among young people, the idea of owning a home is a financial decision, it is not a Dream decision. And the younger you are, the more likely it is that it will not make sense to you. If you are a Millennial, you are probably struggling with debt already, at a young age. You are struggling with your own parents, who are having a tough time, and your willingness to make a commitment to anything long-term is diminished. The idea that you are going to take on a home ownership responsibility, it is increasingly out of the question for younger Americans. It isn’t that they are deprived, it is that they don’t want it.
[This myth] in itself ignores real estate trends. People are moving back into the city more and more, for different reasons. So home ownership is the hardest thing for us to dismiss as a symbol of the American Dream.