For two hundred years the American Dream has served as the bedrock foundation of the American way of life. The dream, reduced to its essence, is that in America, every person has the right and opportunity to pursue his or her own individual material self interest in the marketplace, and make something of their life, or at least sacrifice so the next generation might enjoy a better life. The role of the government, in turn, is to guarantee individual freedom, assure the proper functioning of the market, protect property rights, and look out for national security. In all other matters, the government is expected to step aside so that a nation of free men and woman can pursue their individual ambitions.
Although American history is peppered with lamentations about the souring of the dream, the criticism never extends to the assumptions that underlie the dream, but only to political, economic and social forces that thwart its realization. To suggest that the dream itself is misguided, outdated, and even damaging to the American psyche, would be considered almost treasonous. Yet, I would like to suggest just that.
The American Dream was spawned in the afterglow of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago, at the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era. Enlightenment philosophers painted a new picture of human nature more in line with the new market forces that were promising a qualitative uplift in the standard of living of human beings. For 1500 years, during the feudal and medieval periods, the Church’s dark view of human nature prevailed. Christian theologians exclaimed that babies are born depraved and in sin, and that personal salvation must await them in the next world with Christ. The Enlightenment philosophers views were a breath of fresh air, promising that market forces, if left unhindered by government, would guarantee every person the opportunity to improve his or her station in life. John Locke, Adam Smith, René Descartes, Marquis de Condorcet and other Enlightenment sages were of the belief that human beings were, by nature, materialistic, self-interested, and driven by the biological urge to be propertied, autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, and sovereign over their own domain.
Today, that dream is still fiercely championed by libertarian ideologues and tea party populists. Their increasingly shrill defense of the American Dream, however, seems almost panic stricken in tone, suggesting a desperate effort to hold on to a belief that may, in fact, be passing away.
How else do we account for the fact that the public discourse is becoming so ugly of late? The populist backlash against big government represents more than just a clash over legislative priorities. The opposition to a government stimulus to jumpstart an ailing economy, the reluctance to adopt universal health care, and the growing denial of human induced climate change speak to a deeper sense of apprehension and foreboding. Granted, there are legitimate concerns one might raise to each of these public policy issues. My sense however, is that there is something more profound taking place under the surface, a feeling, particularly among an older generation of Americans, that the American Dream is in jeopardy and, with it, our way of life.
After all, if the American Dream were really working, each person would be able to fend for him or herself in a self-regulating market and be without need of an economic stimulus package or universal healthcare. The reality, however, is that nearly one out of five Americans are either unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work all together, and millions of families are facing foreclosures in a land where homeownership has been regarded as the epitome of the American Dream. Climate change is particularly upsetting; it implies that the invisible hand of the marketplace is both an enabler of global warming and incapable of addressing it without government intervention.
When we consider these big picture policy issues, what becomes clear, if we bother to read between the lines, is that our long held beliefs about human nature, and by extension, the institutions we have created to express those beliefs, played no small role in precipitating the very crisis that now faces the country. In a nation that has come to think of human nature as competitive, even predatory, self serving, acquisitive and utilitarian, is it any wonder that those very values have led to a “winner take all” syndrome in the marketplace in which the rich get richer while everyone else becomes marginalized, and the well-being of the larger community, including the biosphere, becomes eroded? The US ranks 27th among industrialized countries, in income disparity — the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Only Mexico, Turkey and Portugal, of the OECD nations, have greater disparity of income. Moreover, the US enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the two leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Could it be that the American Dream is becoming the American nightmare?
Interestingly, a younger generation of Americans is growing up in a very different world than the one described by the Enlightenment thinkers. Their reality is being lived out on a digital commons and in social spaces on the World Wide Web. All across America, our nation’s teens are performing hundreds of hours of community service as part of their formal educational requirements. In school, they are learning that every activity they engage in — the food they eat, the car they drive, the clothes they wear — comes with a carbon footprint and affects the well-being of every other human being and fellow creature on Earth.
Today’s youth are globally connected. They are Skyping in real time with their cohorts and friends on the far corners of the Earth. They are sharing information, knowledge, and mutual aid in cyberspace chat rooms, apparently unaware of the so called “tragedy of the commons.” They have little regard for traditional property rights — especially copyrights, trademarks, and patents — believing information should run free. They are far more concerned with sharing access than protecting ownership. They think of themselves less as autonomous agents — an island to oneself — and more as actors in an ever shifting set of roles and relationships. Personal wealth, while still important, is not considered an endgame, but only a baseline consideration for enjoying a more immaterial existence, including more meaningful experiences in diverse communities.
Surveys show that the millennial generation in the United States is much more likely than older generations to feel empathy for others. They are far more concerned with the planetary environment and climate change and more likely to favor sustainable economic growth. They are also more likely to believe that government has a responsibility to take care of people who can’t care for themselves, and are more supportive of a bigger role of government in providing basic services. They are more supportive of globalization and immigration than older generations. They are also more racially diverse and the most tolerant of any generation in history in support of gender equality and the willingness to champion the rights of the disabled, gays, other minorities, as well as our fellow creatures. In short, they favor a world of inclusivity over exclusivity, and are more comfortable in distributed networks than in old fashioned centralized hierarchies that establish boundaries and restrictions separating people from one another.
The new sensibilities of the younger generation are beginning to usher in a different idea about human nature and the dream that accompanies it. Today’s youth find little value in the Enlightenment caricature of human nature as rational, calculating, detached, and utilitarian. They prefer to think of human nature as empathic, mindful, engaged, and driven by the intrinsic value and interconnectedness of life. Homo sapien is being eclipsed by homo empathicus, as they shift their horizon from national markets and nation-state borders to a global economy and a planetary community. Even their preferred indicators of economic progress are shifting, from the crude calculation of gross domestic product and per-capita income to more sensitive social indicators — like health and longevity, social equality, safe communities, clean environment, etc. — that measure the well-being of the broader community.
If we listen very closely, we can hear the whisper of a new dream in the making, one based on what youth around the world are beginning to call “quality of life”. In this new world, the American Dream seems almost provincial, even quaint, and entirely unsuited for a generation that is beginning to extend its empathic sensibility beyond national identities, to include the whole of humanity and the entirety of the planet as their extended community. If the American Dream served as the gold standard for the era of national markets and nation-state governments, the dream of “quality of life” becomes the standard for the emerging biosphere era.
In this new, more expansive human setting, libertarian cries and tea party bravado suddenly seem far less significant. The assumptions about human nature and the meaning of the human journey that are bound up with the conventional American Dream, which motivate much of the current political brouhaha, are more like a faint echo of the past than a clarion call for the future. The empathic civilization looms on the horizon.
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