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The American Dream - Not Dead Yet

Solid pluralities of Americans think their country is heading in the wrong direction, have lost faith in its prominent public institutions, and believe both major political parties are an impediment to realizing the American Dream. Nonetheless, that dream persists – threatened, yes, but not nearly dead.

These are the findings in the latest poll from RealClear Opinion Research, focusing on how Americans view their future possibilities and how much economic guidance and oversight should be provided by government. The answers provide a road map for the 2020 election season.

Nearly four times as many respondents say the American Dream is “alive and well” for them personally (27 percent) as those who say it’s “dead” (7 percent). The overwhelming majority express a more nuanced outlook. Two-thirds of those surveyed believe the American Dream is under moderate to severe duress: 37 percent say it is “alive and under threat” while another 28 percent say it is “under serious threat, but there is still hope.”

“In this poll, most people are telling us that the American Dream isn’t working as they believe it should be,” said John Della Volpe, polling director of RealClear Opinion Research. “The overwhelming number of people are not seeing the fruits of working hard, whether it’s through a professional (finances) or a personal (happiness) lens.” 

The panel of 2,224 registered voters was probed for its views on other foundational aspects of 21st century American civic life, including their views of capitalism and socialism, and how they see the future unfolding for the younger generation of Americans.

Asked, for example, whether the American Dream is alive for those under 18 years of age, the attitudes were decidedly pessimistic -- especially among Baby Boomers and the so-called Silent Generation (Americans born between the mid-1920 and mid-1940s), those who have been in control of our public and private institutions for decades. While 23 percent of Baby Boomers and Silent Generation voters say the American Dream is alive for them (already the lowest percentage among all age groups) only 15 percent say they believe it will be there for the next generation.

Measuring attitudes about the American Dream means different things to different people. For this survey, RealClear Opinion Research defined it for the poll respondents by using Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which describes the American Dream as “a happy way of living that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful.”

As one would expect, perceptions of the health of this idea differ by party, age, education and class. Among the most striking findings in the survey were the variances by ethnicity. Asian-Americans are the most likely to say the American Dream is working for them (41 percent) – twice the percentage as Hispanics. Despite such differences, both groups voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2016 and 2018, a trend that appears likely to continue in 2020.

Geography also plays a decisive role in how Americans responded. Thirty-six percent of those living in urban environments say the American Dream is alive for them, compared to those in rural areas (25 percent), the suburbs (24 percent), or small towns (20 percent). These findings are another reminder of how Donald Trump upset expectations in 2016, speaking directly to voters, particularly in Rust Belt states, whose communities have been hollowed out over decades by the forces of globalization and blighted by a catastrophic opioid epidemic. Other findings include:

-- Republicans (35 percent) are more likely to say that the American Dream is alive and well, compared to Democrats (24 percent).

-- Subsequent generations aren’t nearly as pessimistic as Baby Boomers about the future. While, as noted, only 15 percent of Boomers/Silent Generation believe the American Dream is alive and well for the next generation, these numbers are significantly higher for those who will actually be around to see what happens in the coming decades. One-quarter of both Millennials and Gen Z say that the American Dream is alive and well for the next generation. Members of Gen X are of the same mind, registering at 26 percent.

Playing by the Rules

The phrase “American Dream” was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in a 1931 book “The Epic of America.” Amid the depths of the Great Depression, Adams wrote of an “American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” This dream, he added, was “the Star in the West which led him on over the stormy seas and into the endless forests in search of a home where toil would reap a sure reward and no dead hands of custom or exaction would push him back into ‘his place.’”

“This message of hope, coming in the midst of social disaster, not only sold the book,” National Geographic books editor Anthony Brandt wrote 50 years later, “it sold the phrase as well.”

If the terminology was new, the concept wasn’t. Nor has it been static. The promise of a place of boundless physical wealth in a society encouraging freedom and industry was well-established by the mid-19th century -- when it suddenly made a fateful mutation. “The old American dream, the dream inherited from ten generations of ancestors,” historian H.W. Brands wrote, “was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard, of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers: of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at time, year by year.”

All that changed at Sutter’s Creek in 1848, as Brands relates in his book chronicling how the California Gold Rush stamped itself forever on the American psyche. “The new dream,” Brands wrote, “was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck.”

Sudden and possibly undeserved good fortune has a sinister antithetical, however, which is working hard and playing by the rules but with little hope of advancement. Voters who feel this way make a receptive audience for those advocating change. In his stock 1992 campaign speech, Bill Clinton cut to the heart of this unrest:

“For millions and millions of Americans, the dream with which I grew up has been shattered,” he said. “The ideal that if you work hard and play by the rules you'll be rewarded, you'll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you. But that idea has been devastated for millions of Americans.”

In his 2008 acceptance speech for his party’s presidential nomination (and after eight years of Republican rule), Barack Obama extrapolated on this theme, declaring that “America’s promise” holds that while the market economy should reward drive and innovation it also means looking out for “American workers [who] play by the rules of the road.”

Ten years later, in her December 2018 presidential announcement, Sen. Elizabeth Warren hit on this theme, but with a wrinkle. “No matter where you live in America or no matter where your family came from in the world, you deserve a path to opportunity,” she said. “In our country, if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to take care of yourself and the people you love.”

Notice the subtle escalation. In her telling, the American Dream is essentially a guarantee, presumably from government. This gives it an edgier quality. No longer strictly aspirational, it’s a pact – one the nation isn’t always honoring. In this sense, her critique is not qualitatively different from “Make America Great Again,” which can be heard either as a hopeful longing -- or an angry demand.

Voters who believe their hopes are being ignored and their rights thwarted tend to look for people and institutions to blame. In other words, if they are playing by the rules, and not getting ahead, who has rigged the game?

Assessing Fault

One of the most striking findings in the new RealClear Public Opinion survey is how consistently Americans believe that our private and public institutions have made it more difficult, not easier, to achieve the American Dream. This includes the incumbent U.S. president, although his ratings are better than the opposition political party – or his own party, for that matter.

More than half of respondents -- 56 percent -- say Congress has made the American Dream more difficult to attain, while only 10 percent say Congress has made it easier -- a net negative of  46 percent. This was a typical result. Consider the ratings of the other institutions:

-- Judicial system: 47 percent say that America’s judicial system has made the American Dream more difficult to attain; only 11 percent answered “easier” (-36 percent).

-- Wall Street: 45 percent say that Wall Street banks and investment firms have made the American Dream more difficult to attain; 13 percent say easier (-32 percent).

-- Education establishment: 43 percent say that America’s K-12 education system has made it more difficult, 17 percent easier (-26 percent); when asked about higher education, the same 43 percent of Americans say that the nation’s colleges and universities have put the American Dream further out of reach, while slightly more – 22 percent – said “easier.”

-- The two major parties: Asked about the Republican Party, 46 percent say that the GOP has made the American Dream harder to attain, with only 24 percent saying easier. Democrats fared slightly better, although it isn’t anything to brag about: 40 percent of Americans believe the Democratic Party has made it more difficult to attain, with 24 percent answering “easier.”

-- President Trump: Not surprisingly, this polarizing president had the highest percentage of people answering that he’s made the American Dream more difficult to realize, with fully 51 percent choosing that answer. But he also has a high positive figure, with 30 percent crediting Trump for making the dream more easily attainable.

-- Labor unions: Organized labor had the best ratio of any group polled. Only 30 percent say unions have made the American Dream more difficult to attain. But even here, it is underwater, as only 22 percent said “easier.”

“In this poll, most people are telling us that while they still believe in the promise of the American Dream, it’s being undermined by the very institutions that should be bolstering it,” said Della Volpe. “They also believe that it is not likely to get better for the next generation without significant institutional reforms.”

But how far are they willing to go? What about reconsidering free-market democracy itself?

State of Capitalism

With socialism or “Democratic Socialism” the trend du jour in American politics, the RealClear Opinion Research poll probed the public about its own economic ideology.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

For starters, nearly three in five Americans (58 percent) believe that capitalism as currently practiced is generally working for most Americans today and do not believe further government regulation is warranted. This majority believes that either (a) the free markets are already too heavily regulated (22 percent) or (b) favor maintaining the status quo and say that capitalism is generally working well in America (36 percent).

The remaining 42 percent come under two headings. The first (27 percent) say that capitalism and the free markets are “broken” and that stronger government control of markets such as health care, housing and education is necessary. The second cohort of 15 percent says capitalism and the free markets “are not working well.” These voters favor less invasive intervention, but still favor stronger government regulation.

Not surprisingly, there are significant differences by party, as 33 percent of Republicans say there is already too much regulation compared to 17 percent of Democrats (independents were at 19 percent). In addition, while 39 percent of Democrats say that the system is broken and stronger government control of markets such as health care, housing and education is necessary, only 11 percent of Republicans answer that way. Independents are in the middle (26 percent).

Support for free-market capitalism is lowest among young Americans. Exactly half the respondents under 25 years of age say that capitalism is either “not working well” (24 percent) or is “broken” (26 percent). By way of comparison, 38 percent of those over age 65 feel the same way. Looking only at those who are likely to vote in the Democratic primaries, 40 percent agree that the markets are broken and that stronger government control is necessary, with another 19 percent believing additional regulation is warranted.

On the issue of which goods and services the government ought to make available to its citizens for little or no cost, 68 percent of all voters -- including nearly half of Republicans -- believe that health care fits into this category. There is less consensus on other services being discussed at this early stage of the 2020 campaign.

Although four out of 10 of all registered voters believe community college ought to be made available to citizens for little or no cost and 31 percent say the same about child care – a proposal recently introduced by Sen. Warren – these numbers are markedly higher among Democrats. Fifty-three percent of Democrats believe that government should provide free or low-cost access to community college, with 42 percent saying the same about child care. 

Republicans are far less likely to agree, but again independents look more like Democrats than Republicans on this issue and will play a key role once the primaries are settled and candidates move on to the general election.

These findings suggest two great trends are at work as the political firmament gears up for the next election. The first is that, strong personalities aside, 2020 is shaping up as a referendum on federalism: How much government do Americans want, and how much are they willing to pay for? Also: Precisely what role should government have in the economy? What it is not shaping up to be, at least so far, is a referendum on free-market democracy.

“Despite what we heard this weekend from both sides of the political spectrum, the American electorate is not debating capitalism vs. socialism,” notes poll director John Della Volpe. “That’s a false choice that is poisoning the conversation. Americans are debating how capitalism can be modernized so that the next generation can succeed in attaining their best life, their own unique version of the American Dream.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and president of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of "Election 2012: A Time for Choosing." Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP