The American Dream: Myth and Illusion?

December 13, 2011

Political Theory


The American Dream is an idea that has been preached to young Americans and immigrants almost since the Industrial Revolution. America is viewed, around the world, as a place where if a person works hard enough, then their life as well as their family’s lives will improve. Meaning that if you have a strong work ethic, that you’ll get where you want to go in life. We’ve all heard those stories about immigrants coming from their poor countries, and working in a factory to provide a better life for their families. This idea has been nostalgically represented by the house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a car, a wife, and two children. (as pictured below)

The idea that “the American Dream is possible” seems to be the prevailing ideology of most Americans and certainly most immigrants. This idea is spread throughout the US education system, and is spread to other countries by immigrants returning home. We all are pushed to strive to attain the American Dream. For the most part, we all seem to have the notion that no matter where you start out, through hard work, you can improve your life and even become wealthy.

But is this idea just myth and illusion for the lower classes? Edmond Burke argued that myth and illusion is necessary to keep the lower classes content with their meager lives, and to convince them to not go against traditional ways.

In addition to the house with the white picket fence, the American Dream conjures the image of a lower class person toiling away in a factory or office for hours in order to collect a pay check. They may work long and hard hours now, but it all pays off in the end because they have improved their situation. They don’t mind putting in the work because they know it will benefit them in the end.

But is the American Dream an example of bourgeoisie propaganda? Karl Marx argued that the bourgeoisie would use propaganda to keep the proletariat from starting an uprising. This propaganda would prevent the proletariat from noticing that they are being exploited; therefore, they would not want to start an uprising.

My answer to both the Burke and Marx questions is yes. The American Dream is clearly a form of both myth and illusion and propaganda used by the upper classes to keep the lower classes in their place. They promise workers that they’ll eventually make minor gains financially for their current suffering. It is used to distract people from how bad their lives really are, and to prevent an uprising. Basically, what the upper class is saying is, “How about I exploit you today, so that you might be able to improve your life? You should work really hard for me so that you can move up in the world.”

To be clear, I’m not arguing whether or not the American Dream is possible. I’m arguing that it is a form of myth and illusion.

But what do you think?

Is the American Dream a form of myth and illusion ?

Is it a form of bourgeoisie propaganda?

What would Burke and Marx think?

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10 Comments on “The American Dream: Myth and Illusion?”

  1. abswang Says:

    Honestly, I think the American Dream is overrated. It’s a way to tell lower class families that all they need is more money, a nice house, a family and they can be happy. Sorry, but not every wealthy family is happy. If anything, they have even more issues because they have all of their necessities covered so they’re looking for other things to keep them interested. A lot of issues can be solved with money, but I think in the long run, the sooner families realize that money isn’t that big of a deal, they can find happiness sooner.

  2. danielpienkowski Says:

    Personally, I think I have a bit of a biased view towards the American Dream and its attainability due to my own family story. My dad was born in a small village in communist Poland, and, after catching a break, was allowed to come the US legally right after completing graduate school in Warsaw, Poland, in order to explore new career opportunities. Starting off, he knew no one in the country and came here with two suitcases, a few hundred dollars, and a diploma from a university that almost no one in the states had heard of. Luckily, he secured an internship, and, fast-forward 25 years, is now a CFO. The majority of his success came from his drive, work ethic, personality, and maybe even some luck.

    That being said, I believe that the opportunity to prosper and have a successful career is in place in the US. Yet I am also sensitive to the fact that there are many people who might not have been so lucky and simply do not have the means to pursue such opportunities because of circumstances beyond their control.

    Also, I disagree with the theory that, at least in recent decades, the American Dream is simply a form of myth and illusion. Today for the most part I believe that there are sufficient opportunities to advance in many career fields as long as hard work, passion, and dedication are present. Essentially, the more human capital you possess, the more likely you will be able to reach the success you strive for. I understand that this may sound overly optimistic and may not be true for 100% of the population, but to say that any low-income citizen can’t achieve material or professional success is simply false.

  3. weinben Says:

    The American Dream is an appropriation of the myths of situations of being able to have your cake and eat it, too. It is the ideal life, where one is satisfied in every factor of their life: socially, mentally, economically, etc. It is the vision which keeps people going, which gives people fuel on a daily basis. Obviously, cases occur on a regular basis which propagate the idea that the United States is a land where anybody can become anything or do anything they want; almost, an irrationally serving of idealism coupled with a healthy portion of individualism is the core of the American Dream. The ability to do it all, and with a smile on your face. I find it interesting how this post addresses it as a tool to oppress the lower classes, to keep them running in circles, aiming at an unbelievable standard only to realize one day when it is too late that they have been working towards the wrong thing their whole life. Pretty depressing stuff, but there is some validity to it. Immigrants coming to the U.S. after the 1870s believed our streets paved with gold, a place of wonder, achievement, and wealth. There was a place for every type of person, and people of all kinds would coexist peacefully and in prosperity. Then again, this dream, which was once an honest and innocent aspiration, has become the pursuit of money and wealth as the source of happiness. It’s all about cash flow now, and the more of it, the better you are. But perhaps that is the secret the upper classes don’t want everybody to know: life is really that simple and straight forward. It’s all about family ties and lineage, much like aristocratic Europe, and the only way to preserve that is through education and money. Burke would probably agree with me here: the nature of the elite class has been stable for hundreds of years now, and they possess all their power, privilege and wealth because excellence bequeaths excellence, and only through stability and tradition can society progress because it needs direction and guidance, of which it is given by elites who are well aware of the past and plan to remain where they are in the future.

  4. mimirofl Says:

    Is the American Dream still alive? I read The Epic of America where James Truslow Adams first coined the phrase “American dream”. He described it as: “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

    The America of today looks much different from the America of past generations. While some people may think that the American Dream is a myth, I think the beauty of the American dream is that each person can craft his or her own definition of what it means and then choose the means by which to achieve it. Some people may think it involves having an ample amount of money and materials,and others could believe love and happiness is their dream. In addition, isn’t the thought of achieving the American dream something that helps keep people going during challenging times? And, wouldn’t it also make sense, then, that as America evolves, so too does our definition of what the American dream means?

  5. nozomigg Says:

    That all depends on what you’re considering the “American Dream”.
    Sure, there are tales of foreigners coming to America lured by the promise of riches and big houses. But many more came to America dreaming of being able to start a family in peace; being able to work for good money; being able to go to school. The way that American’s see “The American Dream”, and foreigners view “The American Dream” are two completely different visions; unfortunately, this argument only addresses one. In the context of those who came years ago, many reached their dream, and lived happily. Family members came to America because of promises of equality and freedom of speech, not because of white picket fences.

    Overall, the American Dream has turned into a dream of big lawns and houses and successful businessmen because that’s what it is used to be according to most of America when the idea was first introduced. But that’s not what it is. What the American Dream really represents is the ability to have a dream – and be able to reach it. That doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of financial success. That means that a gay man can be a teacher, a female can be the president, a mentally ill student can lead a lecture.

    So no, I don’t think it’s an ideology created to keep the lower class optimistic about working hard house, although I think that’s an interesting concept. I think it’s a representation and a reminder of all the freedom we really do have in America.

  6. thelenj1 Says:

    I agree with the author’s ideas on Marx. Marx makes the claim in order for the proletariat to revolt against the bourgeoisie they have to gain collective consciousness. So the bourgeoisie is always creating distractions in order to block this consciousness. The American Dream makes it appear that any low class individual can become part of bourgeoisie. This disguises the real problem that the bourgeoisie is actually controlling and dominating society. I believe today though less and less people are buying the American Dream. For the first time in American history our generation will not be better off than our parents. Before our generation every generation was better off then the one before it. This being the case I am not convinced that the American Dream was a myth or illusion. Hard work did really seem to pay off and people were able to do better than their parents in society. Now that this is not the case anymore a large proportion of people do not believe in the American Dream. This leads me to believe that the American Dream for sometime was actually somewhat true.

  7. zrobbins24 Says:

    I believe that the American Dream did exist in the early 1900s when the large wave of immigration to the United States occurred. Many immigrants travelled to the United States in hopes of turning rags to riches and providing a better life for their families. At that time, I think that the idea of the American Dream was real. However, in today’s society, I feel that the American Dream has greatly diminished, if it is still there at all. It would be difficult, I believe, for someone to go from the very poor class to the very high class in today’s world. It is possible, and you definitely hear those success stories, but it is rare – usually someone has to invent something that really takes off. The news covers those success stories, but there are many, many more stories in which the American Dream was not attained. Therefore, I believe that the American Dream would be considered a myth and illusion in today’s society.

    Furthermore, I really like the author’s spin on how the American Dream may only be a form of bourgeoisie propaganda. It is a clever twist on the topic. I believe that there is a high potential that the American Dream could be propaganda in order to get the working and middle class to work and make money for the elites. If the American Dream is actually only a piece of propaganda, it has done amazingly well in bringing people to America and making the owners of these major corporations a lot of money.

  8. acicurel Says:

    I think that the American Dream is the possibility of success. No, not everyone in America can be successful and a lot of people are going to fail, but at least in America you have the opportunity to be successful. America on its worst day provides more opportunities for growth than most countries in the world. The American Dream to people already living in American is greatly distorted compared to someone who aspires to come to this country. Having no war surrounding you or knowing that there is a sense of law and order in your country would be of such immense importance to someone facing these problems that aspiring to be wealthy would take a back-seat. So while not every immigrant can have the stereotypical American Dream, every American can still fulfill a dream by bettering themselves.

  9. mzselig Says:

    I think the American Dream is an idea of the past. We discussed this very topic in my discussion section and when posed the question, “Is the American Dream still a possibility?”, far less than half the class raised their hands. The idea that one can work their way up from the bottom and make it into the middle to upper levels of society, in my opinion, is more a myth now than anything. The way society works today is far different than the way it functioned during the era in which immigrants were flooding into this country in search of a better life. During that time, it was possible to get a job with little to no education and work your hardest and possibly be promoted after years of work. Now, the menial labor jobs require at least a high-school diploma, which for many is simply not an option if they moved here from a country with no education system.
    The idea of the American Dream perpetuates itself because people want to believe it is true. It drives us to work harder and try our absolute best in order to attain some kinds of success later on in life, no matter how hard the work is at the onset of our careers.

  10. Brandon Baxter Says:

    Private corporations implant the American Dream into U.S. citizen’s minds to meet their goals. Aldous Huxley talks about it extensively in his book Brave New World. They want us to believe that we deserve the perfect house, the perfect car, vacation days, etc. And when we do not get everything we want, who do we blame? We blame the government instead of the tyrannies and that is exactly what they want us to do. Occupy Wall Street is so powerful because it is the first mainstream movement that is waking up to their game and realizing that the United States is not controlled by the government, but rather the government

    I think the Occupy movement is causing a realization among U.S. citizens to how our country is ran. We should respect the power of this movement.

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