Sandra L. Hanson / John Kenneth White

The following text is part of the exhibition catalogue, published by Silvana Editoriale and available online at

John Kenneth White / Sandra L. Hanson

The Making and Persistence of the American Dream in the 21st Century

The American Dream remains a vibrant concept that Americans comprehend and define in various ways as relevant to their own life experiences. The endurance of this “great epic”, as it was once so famously described (Adams 1941, p. 405), is remarkable, especially given the depressions, recessions, economic contractions and battles over civil rights, women’s rights and gender equality that the United States has witnessed over the years. These economic struggles have been hard and are presently ongoing, starting with the severe economic downturn that began in December 2007 and resulted in Government bailouts of the US banking and automotive industries and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, all before the end of a single calendar year. But other struggles too have caused citizens to redefine the American Dream. For much of our history, African Americans and women were excluded from its promise. It would be left to Martin Luther King and feminist leaders to enlarge the American Dream to include themselves and to encourage their constituencies to have a stake in its success. In 2008, Americans voted in their first African American President. […]


The American Dream throughout History

The resiliency of the American Dream can be traced to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its promise that citizens of the new nation were already endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life and liberty, and that these same people were entitled to engage in many varied pursuits of happiness. These pursuits of happiness often ended with many finding some degree of fulfillment. Writing in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that the Americans he encountered had “acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants”.   Tocqueville added that they “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man, they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands” (Tocqueville 1989).


Surprisingly, the term “American Dream” is of relatively recent vintage. Journalist Walter Lippmann first used the term American Dream in a 1914 book titled Drift and Mastery in which he urged readers to find a new Dream for the 20th century that would end the malaise of Government inaction that had allowed American politics to aimlessly drift (Jillson 2004). But historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase American Dream in 1931. In his book titled The Epic of America (and whose working title was The American Dream), Adams described the American Dream in terms the playwright Moss Hart would recognize: “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Adams 1941, p. 404). But, for Adams, the American Dream involved something more than mere acquisition of wealth and fame. […]


At its core, the American Dream represents a state of mind – that is, enduring optimism given to a people who might be tempted to succumb to the travails of adversity, but who, instead, repeatedly rise from the ashes to continue to build a great nation. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Adams was confident that the United States would overcome its difficulties and that the American Dream would endure thanks to a prevailing optimism that sustains it. “This die-hard optimism”, Adams declared, “had already carried the nation from its primitive beginnings into the 20th century and remained the source of its continued successes”. […]

Notably, Adams penned these words at a time when economic fear was rampant, the stock market had collapsed two years before, the ineffectual Herbert Hoover was President, and the nation’s very survival seemed very much in doubt. By 1933, the stock market had lost 75 % of its 1929 value, national income had been cut in half, exports were at their lowest levels since 1904 and more than six hundred thousand properties (mostly farms) had been foreclosed (Alter 2006). Surveying the economic desolation in January 1933, former President Calvin Coolidge remarked: “In other periods of depression it has always been possible to see some things which were solid and upon which you could base hope. But as I look about me I see nothing to give ground for such hope – nothing of man” (Ibid.). Within days, Coolidge was dead. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought economic relief, the new President knew that to make his efforts long-lasting they should be linked to a new American Dream. Accordingly, Roosevelt told his fellow Democrats upon accepting renomination in 1936: “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living that gives man not only enough to live by, but some-thing to live for.” Without the opportunity to make a living, Roosevelt continued, “life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness” (Roosevelt 1936).

Yet even in the midst of a Great Depression, Americans sensed that their collective futures would be bright, if not for themselves, then surely for their heirs. A poll the Roper Organization conducted in 1938 found only 30 % agreed that a top limit should be imposed on incomes, with anyone exceeding that limit remitting the excess to the federal Government in the form of excise taxes; 61 % disagreed. Americans believed economic prosperity was possible and achieving it would ratify the American Dream, whose promise of hard work (not good luck) is the path to prosperity. Indeed, through every period of triumph and tragedy, Adams maintained that the American Dream was the glue that kept the country together: “We have a long and arduous road to travel if we are to realize the American Dream in the life of our nation, but if we fail, there is nothing left but the eternal round. The alternative is the failure of self-government, the failure of the common man to rise to full stature, the failure of all that the American Dream has held of hope and promise for mankind” (Adams 1941, p. 416).

Adams’s words have echoed throughout the decades, particularly at the onset of Obama’s presidency. Like Roosevelt before him, Obama has had to summon the nation from the sloughs of despair. Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Obama sought to cast himself as an exemplar of the American Dream and the best person who could revive and reclaim it for the rest of us:

“Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story, of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.

It is that promise that’s always set this country apart, that through hard work and sacrifice each of us can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams, as well. That’s why I stand here tonight. Because for two hundred and thirty-two years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women, students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors, found the courage to keep it alive.

We meet at one of those defining moments, a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more” (Obama 2008).


The threat of which Obama spoke was very real. Even as he uttered these words, the nation was mired in a recession judged by most economists to have been the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. More than 7,200,000 jobs were lost; the official unemployment rate exceeded 10 % for the first time in twenty-nine years; and the number of Americans who gave up looking for work or were marginally attached workers hit the 17 % mark (Fox 2009). Taking note of these dismal statistics, Obama declared that they represented “the American Dream [going] in reverse” (Kamp 2009). Despite these adverse statistics and continued uncertainty regarding whether the prescriptions the Obama administration has issued for economic revival will work, faith in the American Dream itself remains strong. In 2009, 75 % told pollsters from CBS News and the New York Times that they had either already achieved the American Dream or that they expected to achieve it; only one in five said it was unattainable. Sociologist Barry Glassner explained why the American Dream was not imperiled, despite the straightened economic circumstances:

“You want to hold onto your dream when times are hard. For the vast majority of Americans at every point in history, the prospect of achieving the American Dream has been slim, but the promise has been huge. […] At its core, this notion that anyone can be President, or anyone can be a billionaire, is absurd. A lot of Americans work hard, but they don’t become President and they don’t become billionaires” (Seelye 2009).

Yet for many Americans, holding onto the American Dream has become increasingly more difficult. During his presidency Bill Clinton defined the American Dream this way: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you” (Jillson 2004). But in the years since, many Americans have hit a glass ceiling. In 2002 Barbara Ehrenreich began to hear from college graduates and white-collar workers who upbraided her for not taking note of their hard-luck stories, “despite doing everything else right”. As one unhappy middle-class correspondent told Ehrenreich:

“Try investigating people like me who didn’t have babies in high school, who made good grades, who work hard and don’t kiss a lot of ass and instead of getting promoted or paid fairly must regress to working for seven dollars an hour, having their student loans in perpetual deferment, living at home with their parents, and generally exist in debt which they feel they may never get out of” (Ehrenreich 2005).

As Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling have observed: “The American Dream is itself a metaphor for occupational success, a metaphor that works for the winners of the educational and occupational career game, but that remains elusive for growing numbers of men and women across age, class, educational, racial, ethnic, and geographical divides” (Moen and Roehling 2005).

Even so the American Dream still endures, and that endurance is a testament to its power. Some years ago, singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen wondered aloud in a song entitled The River whether the American Dream was a lie or it represented something worse (White 1990). But this is a question that most Americans do not want to consider. Instead of questioning the American Dream, Americans are more likely to blame themselves when things do not turn out as they hoped. Nearly a half century ago, a mechanic admitted as much in an interview:

“I could have been a lot better off but through my own foolishness, I’m not. What causes poverty? Foolishness. When I came out of the service, my wife had saved a few dollars and I had a few bucks. I wanted to have a good time, I’m throwing money away like water. Believe me, had I used my head right, I could have had a house. I don’t feel sorry for myself, what happened, happened, you know. Of course you pay for it” (Lane 1962).


One reason the American Dream endures is that it has been closely intertwined with deeply held American values, especially freedom and equality of opportunity. In a 2008 poll, 75 % strongly agreed with this statement: “America is unique among all nations, because it is founded on the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity” (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research 2008). Pollsters for CBS News and the New York Times found 27 % of respondents specifically linked the American Dream to the values of freedom and equality of opportunity. Typical among the responses were these:

“Freedom to live our own life.”

“Someone could start from nothing.”

“That everybody has a fair chance to succeed.”

“To become whatever I want to be.”

“To be healthy and have nice family and friends.”

“More like Huck Finn; escape to the unknown; follow your dreams” (Seelye 2009).


The linking of the American Dream to equality of opportunity is particularly important to understanding the Dream’s endurance. Equality of opportunity is a powerful concept, because, unlike other individual rights that can be easily taken away by authoritarian Governments (e.g., freedoms of speech and religious worship), it is a state of mind that is virtually impossible to eliminate.



As the recent struggles rights, women’s rights and gay rights illustrate, the American Dream is not a static concept. Although Americans have historically associated the American Dream with the values of freedom and equality of opportunity, these values have undergone various iterations over the years. Remarkably, the very first survey concerning the American Dream was not conducted until 1985, when CBS News and the New York Times asked a question that explicitly tied the American Dream to the concept of home ownership: “Do you think that people who may never own a house miss out on an important part of the American Dream?” Not surprisingly, 76 % answered “yes”. Other surveys have demonstrated how powerfully connected the American Dream is to a quantified measure of economic success (particularly educational attainment), including these responses (Wall Street Journal 1986):

84 % said it meant being able to get a high school education.

79 % said it meant owning a home.

77 % said it meant being able to send one’s children to college.

76 % said it meant being optimistic about the future.

68 % said it meant being able to get a college education.

64 % said it meant being financially secure enough to have ample time for leisure pursuits.

61% said it meant doing better than your parents did.

58% said it meant being able to start a business on one’s own.

52 % said it meant being able to rise from clerk or worker to president of a company.

But although the American Dream remains closely tied to the values of freedom and equality of opportunity, its iterations throughout the years have changed. When a Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates study (2008) asked respondents to define the American Dream, the responses ­were more spiritual and vested in emotional, rather than material, security. Substantial majorities considered the following items to be a “major part” of the American Dream:

93 % having a good family life,

90 % having quality health care for myself and my family,

88 % having educational opportunities for myself and my family,

85 % being able to speak your mind regardless of the positions you take,

85 % having a comfortable and secure retirement,

82 % being able to succeed regardless of your family background or where you come from,

81 % being economically secure and not having to worry about being able to afford things,

63 % achieving peace in the world,

59 % having the time to enjoy the good things in life without having to work too many hours,

56 % reducing the effects of global warming.

Certainly, although economic security continues to define the American Dream, the Dream itself has been broadened to include a greater sense of personal well-being and quality of life issues (such as having access to quality health care, working toward world peace and reducing the harmful effects of global warming).


Sandra L. Hanson is professor of Sociology and research associate at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. In Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls in Science Education (Temple University Press, 2009), she examines the experiences of African American girls in the science education system. Her book Lost Talent: Women in the Sciences (Temple University Press, 1996) is a culmination of her research on the loss of talented young women in the science pipeline. Her research has been published in numerous journals including Sociology of Education, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering and Journal of Marriage and Family Studies.

John Kenneth White is professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America. He is an expert on Religion and Politics and the author of several books including Still Seeing Red: How the Cold War Shapes the New American Politics (1997) and The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition (2003). He has also co-authored or edited numerous other books on American politics and the U.S. presidency. His latest is Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era (2009). His analysis of contemporary politics have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, the Hartford Courant, in various other national newspapers and on BBC, National Public Radio and Christian Science Monitor Radio.

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