The idea that anyone, and perhaps everyone, can achieve prominence, permanence, and promiscuity has been a defining feature of the American experience.
However, the American Dream, as it has been roughly understood and loosely interpreted over the last 200 years, is running out of gas. It is sputtering because the legacy of new lands, new opportunities, and new horizons on which the dream depends are diverging from their original context in a way that challenges many inherent cultural myths.
The Essence of The Thing
In 1774, the royal governor of Virginia noted that the Americans "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled." He added that, "if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west."
It is part of our identity to strive, and for 12 generations there have been untapped resources available to satisfy this ambition. Over that time we have come to confuse providence with coincidence; come to believe that we are the richest, most powerful nation in history because of some innate and enduring feature of our culture and racial identity.
We aren’t. There is no city, no hill.
Yes, America has a fine tradition of hard work, grit, courage, and achievement. But America is also the result of a confluence of events and cultures. We are a nation born on third base - massive open country, tons of natural resources, smallish indigenous population to subdue, no significant regional aggressors – and we think we hit a triple.
Nothing encapsulates this misapprehension more succinctly than our reality-star president’s catchy slogan “Make America Great Again” or MAGA - a backwards appeal to our American orthodoxy.
MAGA, and the entitled version of the American Dream it appeals to, is deeply ironic. In maintaining the American Dream as birth right, it ignores the advantages of geography, and minimizes the essential effortful tradition that actually drove the experiment.
MAGA, in its appeal to conditions of history long gone or on the decline (see white majorities, coal mining), jettisons pioneering enterprise in favor of social and technological regression.
It’s as if Mr. Trump exhorts those at his thronging rallies to “Go east, young man!”
How We Got Here: A Primer
For a few hundred years, give or take, the North American continent was a land of tremendous natural resources and low concentrations of wealth relative to the abundance. Energized by hormones and a restrictive moral code, all a young man had to do was head westward for more opportunity. He could make his fortune, then return east for his prize.
Over the following centuries, our grasp stretched by manifest destiny, we populated and delineated the lands from coast to coast. With this expansion, American wealth accumulated to an unprecedented degree, and at the end of the 19th century the Gilded Age was truly on.
Capital concentrations might have stayed this way if not for the next engine of American opportunity, the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the 20th century, our country’s natural wealth was matched to the multiplier of industrial technology. The efficiency, made possible through the partnership of natural resources and technology, enabled an era of consumption on a scale that would have made Adam Smith blush.
The quality of goods increased in equal measure to their drop in price. Our financial system got into the multiplier act, and consumerism was accelerated with credit.
Humanity took nearly a century to get the hang of industrialization. The same technology that enabled a geometric increase in available wealth also enabled unprecedented killing power. The American brand of opportunity was tested by World War I, then the Depression, and finally the second World War.
Because of our relative isolation, at the end of industrialization’s getting-to-know-you period, Americans were on top. War had energized American industry at a time when Europe lay in ruins. The American dream - the notion of transformation and progress - had won the day. Our way was clearly the best, and on a global scale. Within two generations, we had defeated the main competing philosophy, Communism.
It’s easy to understand why this might go to our heads. But it’s a moment in time: a period between ice ages.
No longer a question of heading west, Americans looked to increased control of the laws of nature for new opportunities.
Today, advances in technology and science are shifting our society as surely as the Industrial Revolution did in the last century, and as before, humanity will be tested.
MAGA is humanity failing the test because it so profoundly misunderstands the lessons of history. There is no steady state in which American character can achieve without limit. Furthermore, there is no past to reclaim, and it has never been in the American character to look for solutions in the past.
The tradition of American success relies on seeing how things are and working for things that might be. Whether this is a world-view that will yield results going forward is unclear.
What we can address is the present. Six months into the MAGA era, we have advanced very little on most issues. Few are closer to achieving the American Dream, and that, regardless of philosophical frames, is our American Reality.