The Four Myths of the American Dream

Picture via Getty Images.

I have three great loves in my life: my family, soccer, and the American dream. So as a naturalized citizen and a defender of an aspirational vision for the United States, I was predictably excited to read Ours Was the Shining Future: The Rise and Fall of the American Dream, the new book by New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner David Leonhardt.

For him, the American dream is held up by three main pillars: power, investment, and culture. Power refers mainly to the battles between political factions, the scuffles between unions, corporations, and policymakers. Leonhardt worries about crony capitalism and money in politics, and prefers an even stronger role for public entities and government leaders to remedy both. Though he recognizes the importance of markets and private investment, he also focuses more on government investments in public services, infrastructure, and the like. He does something similar for culture; the book’s discussion mostly focuses on how the government can influence culture, rather than how private initiative and human ingenuity can shape it.

Leonhardt cares deeply about the American dream and understands how crucial it is for the future of the country. He recognizes how it has invigorated the country’s historic pursuit of happiness, while also acknowledging many of the issues that are plaguing it (ex: complacency, cronyism, and a lack of competition). Ours Was the Shining Future aspires to rekindle what the writer James Truslow Adams defined eloquently in his 1931 book, The Epic of America: “The dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” 

But Leonhardt largely misses where the American dream stands today. In particular, I worry that Ours Was the Shining Future relies on four myths of the American dream which together downplay its promises and possibilities today.

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