By Jonathan Donald Jenner
The American Dream, by attributing success to personal attributes like hard work and trumpeting the idea of a ‘level playing field,’ also causes people to blame themselves when they experience economic difficulty. This occurs even when the hardship is clearly not caused by the actions of individuals, but from the structural failures of capitalism[i]. This misplaced blame has dangerous effects on our health, affects our ability to mount viable responses to the structural failures of capitalism, and worse, allows snake-oil salesmen to direct that blame outwards – on immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized groups.
The American Dream has such a hold on the American imagination, in part, because it’s our great equalizer. Though some of us are poor and a few of us are rich, we can all still work hard. And we live in a structure, so the Dream goes, where hard work can make you at least not poor. Never mind that the Dream is substantially untrue, or that whatever elements of truth it may have had are eroded by the day: substantial amounts of Americans still believe it! The hold on America’s collective imagination has been weakened by the Great Recession, but it’s still there – last year, according to the NY Times, 64% of American’s believed that hard work can make one rich, down from 72% at the beginning of the Great Recession. Another poll though, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that only half of Americans believe in the American Dream[ii].