It is an oft-approached topic in college history classes: American exceptionalism. Especially when you get to the graduate level, you only discuss it more. Americans, throughout history, have touted themselves, their brand of government and social structure, their notions of upward mobility, and their presence in other nations as products of the fated “city on a hill,” the America that was bound to be exceptional. And notice, we will discuss, how it is only us saying this.
With the very powerful notion (but largely myth) of American exceptionalism comes his brother, the American Dream. That idea that your lineage does not matter, you can be upwardly mobile no matter your humble beginnings, and you can dream of a better life for your children. Yesterday will be better than today. For the most part, this Dream is at least a decade deceased; it has been waning since the mythical, glorious, shiny post-war era of the 1950s. The pursuit of happiness that continued in earnest until we had filled out the entire North American continent, east to west, reaching the end of the American Frontier, is harder to seek in a world filled with limitations on that lusted-after open road and endless new beginnings. Starting over, a concept we still seek in earnest. People still show up in the United States every day hoping to do that same thing for their own lives and families. It is a testament to how strong that hope–that Dream concept–is that it still propels our lives hundreds of years after it began, and the thought of the hope (and then fear) new immigrants feel can sometimes bring me to tears. I sincerely hope we can deliver. I fear that often we don’t, and cannot.
The lost and dying American Dream notion is so entrenched in the American psyche that most have a hard time believing its demise is even possible. But it takes no master of logic to understand that time is not a constant march uphill, humankind cannot possibly continue on an upward, constant positive, path of improvement. That’s impossible. Also impossible is the hegemony of one nation to dominate the planet for any really long period of time. Nations fade. Not only is the demise of the American Dream possible, it is reality.
A recent article by Jon Meacham in Time magazine gets to this point, to the crucial difference we face as a nation today that was not present in previous times of recession and economic hardship: the rest of the planet. The article quotes author Jim Cullen, who wrote the 2003 book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation:
In the 19th and 20th centuries, no one spoke of the French Dream of the Russian Dream, but in the 21st century, it probably is possible to speak of a Chinese Dream.
The article points out that, “strangely, it’s now possible for the French to be more socially and economically mobile than Americans.”
I don’t intend to wax negative about the future of the United States, it just bothers me when so many of my fellow citizens have such unrealistic and idealistic notions about our nation as a whole, its success, its stability, and its future. Don’t you knuckleheads know anything about the other empires of the past? Empires fade, and the people living in them readjust their expectations and lives around their new realities.
I still have great hope that we can contribute to the larger goals of a successful planet, in terms of innovation, technology, environmental sustainability, medicine, art, philosophy, education and other crucial areas. But our lifestyles and our concepts of what’s normal and possible within our modern day will have to be taken down a few pegs. Certainly, there are billions of other ambitious people in other countries that now have opportunities they never dreamed possible, in their own nations. We have a lot of other people in the race with us, competing, inventing, influencing; our role in all of this has changed. Within that, our goals and ambitions and expectations have changed to–we just haven’t adjusted well to them. But I hope we can.