The American Dream: An idealized concept and the latest buzzword in American politics. At the Republican National Convention, President Trump commented on his opponent Joe Biden that the 2020 election will “decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.” We hear the terms “American dream” so often in political banter, but what does the American Dream actually mean in contemporary America?
The American Dream is fundamentally the principle of providing everyone with equal opportunity to work hard and become successful, rooted in American culture since the beginning of the country. This idea has been the allure for America throughout history, with many people migrating to America for a better future. Starting a life from scratch through hard work and dedication was the essence of the American Dream.
For many, the “roaring 20s” is what we associate with the American Dream concept, such as in literary works like the Great Gatsby. Although he does not denounce the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts how the human tendencies for short cuts and impatience will ultimately ruin people’s hopes for the American Dream. Through the downfall of the main character, Gatsby, Fitzgerald established the American Dream as a goal and ideal that is only achievable through proper morals, integrity, and hard work.
Fitzgerald condemns people’s inclination to find an easier route and their inability to put in genuine hard work. Gatsby’s story suggests that failures in people’s character results in the corruption of their American Dream. Gatsby had hopes of elevating his social status and wealth, but his actions to achieve this status directly violated their integrity and made him a criminal. In the end, Gatsby’s ultimate demise reveals Fitzgerald’s view that while everyone should strive to attain the American Dream, the wealth and richness promised by the dream is not worth sacrificing one’s character and morals. The American Dream is ultimately a test on one’s true nature. People must prove themselves worthy of success by demonstrating the fortitude of their ethics. Fitzgerald concedes that while the American dream is attainable, the scarcity of people with integrity cast doubt on the American Dream’s legitimacy and may create the illusion that the dream is unreachable.
The fulfillment of the American Dream dependence on an individual’s morality holds today, evident through the lives of American household names like Oprah Winfrey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Both, although billionaires right now, came from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, working hard in school and getting scholarships while maintaining their principles allowed them to become successful people. They are the epitome of the American Dream, proving that the American Dream is attainable. However, the Dream may be attainable but not accessible to everyone. Winfrey and Pichai were outliers, not the norm. With the lowest mobility rates in the western world, people in America coming from a background of money have a much greater chance of reaching success. Nevertheless, both Winfrey and Pichai transcended the restrictions of their own disadvantaged personal lives along with the systemic advantage that exists in America, which favors kids from higher-income families compared to lower. They represent the American Dream fundamentals, such as hard work and integrity, which most Americans agree on.
However, these fundamentals get overlooked and tangled up in modern American politics. Take immigration, for instance. Immigrants come to America to have a better future and are justified by the American Dream’s allure, often leaving behind a home country of political turmoil and economic failure. These immigrants come to America, get a job, support a family, and ultimately achieve their version of the American Dream by providing their families with a better future. Today, these immigrants face backlash because of their illegal entry, raising the question of what morals and values are needed to achieve the American Dream. Illegal immigration, beginning in the 1900s and peaking in the late 1990s and 2000s, has become the forefront of political and moral discourse. Although they broke the law, these immigrants sacrificed their lives to give a better future to their children, exhibiting their core values and character. Since they achieve the American Dream while breaking the law, immigrants today ultimately challenge Fitzgerald’s characterization of the American Dream.
The politicization of the term “American Dream” has created these discrepancies regarding issues such as immigration. President Trump and the Republicans use the American Dream idea as a rationale for stopping immigration, saying that only people who come in through proper channels and integrity should be allowed to stay. On the other hand, Democrats use the same American Dream idea to motivate and help immigrants who want to work and make better lives for themselves.
The uncertain and vague meaning of the American Dream assists for politicians and leaders in modern America to manipulate the term for their agenda. The American Dream has become another marketing tool, another illusion exploited by politicians. Fitzgerald’s characterization of the American Dream as based on morals and doing the right thing is just as correct and accepted as the American Dream’s fundamental characterization based on hard work and working one’s way up the social and economic ladder. When it comes to illegal immigration, who decides if morality is more important than hard work? Does the hard work these immigrants put in to achieve their American Dream excuse that they broke the law?
The “dream” holds a different meaning and an extra level of achievement and regard to every American. The American Dream for a first-generation immigrant student might be attending college. They may work hard their entire high school career and get into a top-tier school. For them, they achieved their version of the American Dream. But is it really the fulfillment of the American Dream? With people like Lori Loughlin paying and manipulating the same system to get their child into the same school, does the American Dream exist? Did the first-gen student’s hard work constitute the American Dream when others can bypass and trick the system with wealth and greed?
The hypocrisy and the double standards surrounding the American Dream make it such a dangerous concept in today’s political world. It’s always thrown around in debates and used as a rationale, but no one knows what it truly stands for anymore. A century ago, the American Dream may have seemed like a concrete concept. It was merely the promise of a better life. But, racism and societal values back then botched this idealistic illusion. America rejected people of color and minorities from participating in the “dream.” It may have been subtle at sometimes, with the systemic efforts to hinder black Americans’ advancement or the blatant disregard of Native Americans. Other times, it was clear cut, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding any Chinese laborers’ entry, denying them the chance to fulfill the American Dream.
The patterns of America constantly providing an advantage to one group over another, in terms of immigration or economic mobility, clouds the overall theme of the American Dream: an equal chance for everyone. The country’s confusion and inability to firmly characterize what we believe the American Dream serves as a signal for us to take a step back and look at ourselves. We need to ask ourselves now, especially with an election on its way, “What do we stand for?”
Samica Goel is a high school senior, passionate about national politics and international relations. She plans to study economics and business in college and attend law school. In her spare time, Samica is an avid dancer and enjoys traveling.