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With The American Dream Comes The Nightmare

Unemployed circus clown Tim Torkildson, aka Dusty the Clown, sits on a bench on the north side of the U.S. Capitol in May.
Bill Clark
CQ Roll Call
Unemployed circus clown Tim Torkildson, aka Dusty the Clown, sits on a bench on the north side of the U.S. Capitol in May.

One American's dream can be another American's nightmare.

Consider: Some people long to live in big cities; others think cities have ruined the landscape. Some Americans love to drive big old honking SUVs; others see huge cars as pollution-producing monsters. For some people, the American dream is a steady office job. For others, the office is a sinkhole and the real dream is freedom from the office.

For Jamie Smith, owner of the Mr. Rooter plumbing company in Baltimore, the American dream involves less government. Testifying before Congress recently, Smith said that a state sales tax on gasoline would be detrimental to his business.

"I used to think that having a small business was the American dream," Smith said, "but now it appears to be the American nightmare."

For Boston attorney Paul L. Nevins, however, the government is essential to the American dream.

"The continued gutting of this country's labor laws is a national disgrace as well as a middle-class tragedy," Nevins wrote recently to The New York Times. "With the decline of unions, the middle class has lost its bargaining leverage. Temporary jobs, minimum-wage service jobs and unpaid internships — all justified based on the needs of the market — have turned the American Dream into the American Nightmare."

For Dick Meyer, author of the 2008 book Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium, the idyllic vision of American life involved belonging, as well as individualism.

"The notion of being able to belong to the church of your own choice or of participating in the town meeting was part the American dream," says Meyer, former executive editor of NPR who's now executive producer for the BBC's news services in the U.S. "Now we dream of gated communities and media rooms that let us watch movies without going to theaters. We got scared of the world and obsessed with safety in a pathological way."

The Wall Street Journal has described itself as "the Daily Diary of the American Dream."

This, then, is "A Brief Diary of the American Nightmare."

Size Of The Pie

The American dream is rooted in limitless growth, expansion, possibility.One Yahoo blogger lists six benchmarks of the middle-class version — homeownership, a nice car, college education, retirement security, health care assurance and vacation time. But today's palsied economy puts many of these dreams out of reach — or at least on layaway.

There is a sense in contemporary America that we may have found some limits. And in some ways that there is no more space for expansion. That we are trapped in a room, the walls closing in; no windows, no doors, no exit. Aaaiiieee! What a nightmare!

Perhaps the tension between our waking dreams and nightmares is hyperheightened by our economic system. Does capitalism really make it possible for a maximum number of people to realize their dreams? Or does it work in the opposite fashion — and require a concomitant number of disasters?

Martha Starr, who teaches economics at American University, says there is not anything inherent in capitalism that would make an American dream for one person come at the expense of someone else. But, she adds, the contemporary American way of life does present challenges.

Starr uses the 1960s to illustrate a calm-waters period in the economic sea — when unemployment was very low and, in a broad-based way, household incomes were rising. Sure, there were the inevitable ebbs and flows, she says. Some people had more success than others — in jobs and opening businesses. But, on balance, the rising tide lifted most boats, putting the average American household ahead of where it had been in the past.

"Not so much now," Starr says. "For the past 10 to 15 years, there hasn't been any up trend in household incomes: They go up somewhat in good times when more work is available and down during recessions when jobs dry. But average people aren't seeing their livelihoods register any sustained improvement."

To buttress her assertion, she points to a Census Bureau chart showing Real Median Household Income for the years 1967-2010. For Americans of all stripes, the trend lines climb until around 2000, then flatten out.

"The one constant of the capitalist economy," Starr says, "is its perpetual flux. New businesses and new industries arise and aim to compete sales away from older or less efficient competitors. Entrepreneurs who can launch successful business projects accumulate wealth and create new jobs — but the firms they displace wind up having to close their doors and lay people off."

If it appears like there is some inevitable balance of dreams against nightmares, Starr says, "the zero-sum quality of it is more a product of our times than anything else. The size of the pie isn't really growing — relative to the size of the workforce — so a bigger piece for one person means a smaller piece for another."

She adds. "Given how much pressure our high-consumption lifestyles put on the environment, having the economy muddle along like this isn't necessarily bad. But it makes all types of bad luck that much harder to cope with. If you lose a job, incur large uninsured medical expenses, go through a messy divorce, see your home price drop by 30 percent, et cetera, you can't just go out and get a good job and earn your way out."

External Effects, Internal Attitudes

While some Americans may follow their dreams to China or other international promised lands, those who want to stay home and seek their fame and fortune in America may need help. But like the above-mentioned Smith and Nevins, Americans do not always agree on the government's role in helping dreams come true.

For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the bugaboo was too much dependence on government. Eisenhower was Emersonian at heart and a champion of American self-reliance. Before he was elected president of the United States — when he was still president of Columbia University — Eisenhower told a 1949 gathering of newspeople: "Unless we understand the American dream, it may become the American nightmare."

As Americans, Eisenhower continued, "we believe in human dignity, in human rights not subject to arbitrary curtailment. We believe that these rights can be fully possessed and effectively exercised only so long as man asserts and maintains himself the master not the serf of institutions he creates."

He went on to emphasize personal responsibility over governmental responsibility and the need to balance social and economic welfare with individual freedom and rights.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s American dream, on the other hand, as outlined in his 1964 speech at Drew University, was predicated on governmental involvement. "Through legislation," King said, "we control the external effects of bad internal attitudes, and so it is necessary in society to have legislation" to realize the American dream.

That same year, Malcolm X also spoke about life in America.

"I'm speaking as a victim of this American system," Malcolm X said. "And I see America through the eyes of a victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare." He warned against relying too much on the American government for assistance.

At least Dwight Eisenhower and Malcolm X agreed on something.

Living In The Dark

The unalienable right to pursue individual happiness is coded into America's DNA. The underlying message is that you can be as happy as you want to be, as happy as you can make yourself.

What makes the American strand of human aspiration uniquely American, says Meyer, is that belief that a person can be "self-made," that one can transcend one's appointed rung on the ladder of society as determined by class, gender, birth order, inherited vocation and religion.

"The archetypal American dream was deeper than being richer and better looking than your parents," he says. "It was about identity — forging it, discovering it yourself, not inheriting it."

But as it became easier, and even expected, to be self-made, the moral and spiritual pull of family, village, calling and religion receded into the mist, Meyer says. And along about the 1960s, "self-determination essentially became a consumer choice. Pick a religion and find an exercise regime, diet, clothing brand and favorites list to match."

For many Americans, he says, the challenge of near total life freedom ...has been that shedding old ties and traditions turns out to be easier than finding meaningful new ones; forming a modern 'lifestyle' often ends being narcissistic and consumerist."

This choice overload, Meyer says, "has proven to be spiritually hollow. We've found nothing to replace community, hard morality, religion and vocational pride to guide us through life. We're existentially in the dark."

And that, he adds, is the place where the American nightmare takes hold.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.