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Is the American Dream Ideology Losing Sway?

David Callahan

Pew is out with a new poll on inequality and social mobility, with the usual findings about how divided the public is about these issues -- with Republicans tending to shrug their shoulders about inequality and blame individuals or government for people's economic problems, and Democrats tending to blame larger circumstances. But here's the finding that jumped out at me: Pew's polling over the past twenty shows that Americans have less faith that hard work will lead to success.

Twenty years ago, 68 percent of respondents agreed with this proposition, and that shared climbed to a high of 74 percent in the late 1990s. But the numbers have been falling ever since, and the most recent poll finds that 60 percent of Americans believe that "most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard." Meanwhile, 38 percent of respondents agreed that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people -- up from 23 percent in the late 1990s. 
Now, the fact that six and ten Americans still believe that anyone with grit can succeed is impressive testament to this nation's enduring faith in individual volition -- a faith that has always been unusual among advanced countries. Other societies, with centuries of feudalism in their past, have a much deeper streak of fatalism. Which helps explain stronger support for a well-financed government that can protect individuals from the vicissitudes of powerful elites and from plain fate. 
But the declining belief in work nevertheless seems significant, and may signal that the American Dream ideology is losing its sway. That ideology is insidious because it teaches people to entirely blame themselves for their economic misfortune -- even in a globalized world with constant technological and managerial innovations which routinely render moot whole groups of workers, and sometimes entire regions. 
Clearly, more Americans are catching on to the fact that they don't live in a simple land of bounty where opportunity is there for the taking, if one just has the right mindset. That would make sense given over a decade of flat household incomes, along with the near-meltdown of the global economy in 2008 -- followed by more than a half decade of stagnation. It's a wonder that 60 percent of people still believe in individual volition after that ride -- or, at least, would be a wonder in any society that wasn't so squarely built on the aspirational ideal of individual empowerment by people fleeing fatalistic societies and seeking to create something different. 
The big question now is whether the American Dream ideology will return in force once the economy picks up. That will depend on whether future growth lifts all boats, which briefly happened in the late 1990s (but didn't happen during the credit-fueled boomlet of 2005 to 2007.) Another brief period of shared prosperity would probably be enough to get a strong majority again believing that anyone can succeed -- at least for a while. 
But the economy has changed since the 1990s, and it's getting harder to imagine a scenario for equitable growth absent bigger reforms. So maybe what we're looking at is a continual chipping away at the American Dream ideology for years to come, which in turn could remake U.S. politics -- deepening class politics and legitimizing a new structural critique of contemporary capitalism.
Such a shift would be a good thing in my book -- if only it didn't come at so high a cost.