The American dream has always been global. In 1931, when the historian James Truslow Adams first introduced the concept, he credited the dream with having “lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores.” Yet in recent years, a troubling gap has developed between this original dream and a new one that speaks far less eloquently to the rest of the world.
The original dream has three strands. The first is about prosperity: the classic saga of penniless strivers working hard to lift their families into the middle class. An integral part of this saga is continuity between generations—with parents sacrificing so their children can succeed, and successful children never forgetting “where they came from.” Needless to say, this dream of hard work and intergenerational mobility is shared by the 95 percent of humanity who are not American. But it is called the American dream because the United States was the first nation in history where it actually came true for large numbers of people.
The United States is also the nation where the deliberate exclusion of any individual or group from the dream came to be condemned. This points to the second and third strands: democracy and freedom. For the dream to function properly, the basic rights of individuals must be respected. On this point Adams is clear: “It is 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.”
It’s important to note that Adams was writing during the Great Depression, and that these inspiring passages are accompanied by a long list of economic and social ills, and recommendations for reform. At the same time, he warned, the greatest danger was that Americans would not make the necessary effort to save the dream, because “too many of us … have grown weary and mistrustful of it.”