SHERIDAN — How do you define a dream? Just like the people who answer that question, the definitions will vary with each individual, circumstance, socioeconomic background and personality. The American Dream has long had a shared meaning across the globe, but many have argued that the meaning has shifted since the phrase first found popular use.
According to Sarah Churchwell, the author of the book “Behold, America,” the American Dream has always been about the prospect of success.
“But about 100 years ago,” she said in a 2018 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, “the phrase meant the opposite of what it does now. The original American Dream was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation.”
Since President Donald Trump declared the American Dream dead in a 2016 campaign speech, then promised to bring it back to life later, many have debated the meaning and attainability of the modern American Dream.
Defining a dream
To several locals, the dream isn’t necessarily about monetary gain, but rests more with the freedom America provides.
To John Dick, a Sheridan resident who works at First Interstate Bank, the American Dream is “the ability for every person to live how they want, pursue the things they enjoy and have the ability to improve their lives as they see fit.”
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, echoed that sentiment, adding that it means people “have the right to be left alone.”
“You’re free to be who you are and to be left alone to make a decent life for yourself,” he said, adding that economic self-determination also makes up part of the dream.
In February, the American Enterprise Institute released the results of “AEI Survey on Community and Society: Social capital, civic health and quality of life in the United States.”
The survey included Americans age 18-70 and surveyed 7,352 people between June 13 and July 17, 2018. The survey had a 32.8 response rate.
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to rate the essential components of the American Dream. To have freedom of choice in how to live one’s life ranked the highest, with 85 percent of respondents noting it as the biggest component.
Closely behind that, at 83 percent, was to have a good family life and to retire comfortably (71 percent). Other components included to own a home (59 percent), to have a successful career (49 percent), to have a better quality of life than your parents (45 percent), to make valuable contributions to your community (35 percent) and to become wealthy (16 percent).
Some local definitions included a number of those components. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, provided a broader definition that includes a desire to live “safe from fear and want, to raise a family, to practice your faith, to have work that is rewarding and to have hope that each day will be a bit better than the one before.”
Local business owner Shelley Kinnison emphasized that the dream can be anything you want it to be, a shift she said is due largely to the greater acceptance of diversity throughout America’s history.
Sheridan County Commissioner Mike Nickel noted that as he had heard it, the American Dream was owning your own home, but he too noted that the definition has changed and extended beyond that.
A history of aspiration
Churchwell — both in her book and the Smithsonian interview — notes that the American Dream really gets its start in the Progressive Era.
“It takes hold as people are talking about reacting to the first Gilded Age when the robber barons are consolidating all this power,” she told the Smithsonian. “You see people saying that a millionaire was a fundamentally un-American concept. It was seen as anti-democratic because it was seen as inherently unequal.”
The shift happened after World War II when the dream became commercialized, she says.
Isadora A. Helfgott, University of Wyoming associate professor and department chair for the Department of History and American Studies, agreed. She pointed out that as industrial workers and their families attained disposable income, the dream became more about what success looked like — washers and dryers, home ownership, etc.
Helfgott noted two primary shifts in how the American Dream was defined. After World War II, she said, there was a lot of government-funded affluence through programs like the GI Bill and legislation that emphasized housing and infrastructure. By supporting the housing industry and infrastructure, Helfgott said, the government encouraged suburbanization, so businesses formed that standardized modest homes for the middle class.
The second shift, she said, came in the 1960s as children of the post-war generation had a critical response to the consumer-based economy.
“This is when (the American Dream) becomes not consumer-based, but more about community and peace and there is a more critical approach to consumer affluence,” Halfgott said. “…Even in the advertising industry, you see the ‘uncool’ becoming the new ‘cool’ as people question the very infrastructure of America and the idea of the American Dream.”
Sheridan High School student Marissa Brenneman said she believes the dream has changed, from encapsulating hope and achievement through hard work to a jest.
“While it may just be the sort of people I surround myself with, the majority of my peers and myself only refer to the American Dream flippantly, sarcastically,” Brenneman said. “At this point in our lives, we’ve not seen the American Dream fulfilled to any extent and see no reason that it will be in our futures. Not to mention, the desires of younger generations has changed significantly. I would argue that a considerable portion of my peers don’t want children, a large family, a big house nor explicit displays of wealth.”
Attainability and disillusionment
While the definition of the American Dream varies, most Americans still believe the dream is attainable, though the rate at which they believe that depends largely on their socioeconomic background.
The AEI Survey on Community and Society shows that overall, 40 percent of American adults feel their family is living the American Dream, while another 40 percent believe they are on their way and 18 think the dream is out of reach. Younger people tended to believe they are on their way, while older respondents felt they were already living the dream.
But 26 percent of respondents with household incomes below $30,000 believed the dream is unattainable, as did 19 percent of respondents with incomes between $30,000 and $74,999.
Brenneman doesn’t believe the dream is possible today.
“Of course, mobility of socioeconomic status is possible and happens regularly to minor degrees. But, to claim that anyone can move from lower-class to upper-class without outside assistance is not true,” Brenneman said. “As the discrepancy between the rich and the poor widens, it becomes more and more difficult for upward movement in the socioeconomic ladder. Unlike what may have been true a century ago, hard work and dedication buys very little today. The barriers that exist between low-income people and secondary education, a living wage, disposable or investable income, and even proper representation in the government that makes the laws that control your life are nearly impossible to overcome.”
Helfgott, too, pointed out that the idea of a meritocracy has come under fire in recent years, pointing to one recent example in the college admissions scandal that included wealthy parents buying admission for their children to post-secondary institutions.
Helfgott also noted that the social strictures that were in place to support the American Dream take a different shape now. While many of the programs were deeply flawed and helped primarily privileged white, male workers, they did create opportunity. When those jobs — many of which were union jobs that fought for better pay and better working conditions for American workers — disappeared, so did a lot of opportunity for the American middle class.
Others, though, maintain their optimism when considering whether the American Dream is attainable.
Kinnison said the American Dream is still attainable, but most people don’t do the work to define it.
“It can’t be vague, it can’t be dependent on others and above all you have to work, because chances are it hasn’t been done before,” Kinnison said. “And don’t think there won’t be road blocks, there will be and that is when most people quit, but what is needed is to redefine, learn from the block and keep on going.”