Why the American dream is just a mirage

The great success of societies that are as spectacularly unequal as the US is the indoctrination of the populace into believing that in so far as they are excluded from the wealth of such societies it is because of their own inadequacies. By Vincent Browne.

There is an impulse to dismiss political rhetoric as just so much blather, harmless blather.

But there is much more to it, for very often such rhetoric taps into and works to legitimise certain shared ideas, helping them to achieve the status of unassailable and obvious “truths” that generate power to persuade a populace of the “common sense” of ideas, that persuade people of the necessity to support policies that, manifestly, are against their interests. For instance, of the “necessity” for huge disparities of power, income and wealth.

That “common sense” allows elites to maintain their power not through force or coercion but through the active and willing consent of the majority of people.

There was much of this in the children’s referendum debate, such as children being heard as well as seen, and the stuff about every child matters, masking the reality in our society that every child does not matter and the voices of many children will never be heard, now and when they grow out of childhood.

A striking example of such rhetoric was the victory speech of Barack Obama in Chicago on 6 November and in one crucial regard particularly.

He spoke of the American spirit, “the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people”.

The top 1% of income “earners” get 24% of all income. In 1915, the year of the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the top 1% got just 18%. One nation, one people?

Obama spoke aspirationally about solidarity and Americans looking out for each other but then came the following towards the end of the speech: “I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

This is what is called “the American dream” and it is probably the strongest line Americans buy into, almost the ethos of the United States, the justificatory philosophy for US capitalism. It is what gives Americans the idea that the US is “the greatest nation on earth”.

Several studies have shown this “American dream” is a mirage.

For instance, one (Understanding Mobility in America, published by the Centre for American Progress) showed that the US and the UK had the lowest intergenerational vertical social mobility of nine developed countries (the others being France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark).

It showed that children from lowincome families have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of income distribution, whereas children of the rich have a 22% chance. It also showed that African American children who are born in the bottom quartile of income distribution are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely than the top quartile.

And yet most Americans believe this is “common sense”, even though it is common nonsense.

How different would the US be if a majority of the population believed the American dream was just that: nonsense? Is it likely they would tolerate a system that resulted in such rigid inequalities or vote as president someone who celebrated that system and an opponent who exemplified it? And how is it that so many Americans believe this when the facts are demonstrably different, even their own experiences, in the vast preponderance of cases, are so demonstrably different?

There is a further insidious kick to what Obama said a week ago in Chicago and it is the last tag of that paragraph: “You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

So does that mean that for 46.2 million Americans living in poverty (according to the US census) it’s simply because they were not “willing to try”? Does that mean that more and more Americans have not been “willing to try” over four consecutive years during which the numbers in poverty have risen (according to the US census)?

And how does this explain that one in five children was in poverty? Was it because they had not been “willing to try”? The great success of societies that are as spectacularly unequal as the US is not just the vast wealth that is accumulated by the rich, it is indoctrination of the populace into believing that this is the best of all possible worlds, and in so far as they are excluded from the wealth of such societies it is because of their own inadequacies.

The system is fine.

Image top: John M. Cropper.