The global superpower that is the United States was built on the common concept of the American Dream. Starting with a handful of colonists, it was eventually shared by over 300 million people in the country—and an even larger number outside of it. By having the spirit and resolution to expand across a vast continent, together with the wit and skill to exploit its vast resources, Americans built a society that became the bedrock of Western prosperity. At its most basic, the dream was that anyone, no matter how humble, could be part of that richer society and “pull themselves up but their bootstraps”.
With the original colonists escaping the constrictions and persecutions of Europe and subsequent waves hoping to make a better life, the American Dream was born of a blend of aspiration and desperation. It needed little justification, given its palpable success for several centuries. But it was a delusion.
It was a delusion, based on something approaching a Ponzi scheme—that the frontier was infinite, that resources were infinite and that environmental and social consequences were negligible. The Founding Fathers declared:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
These are inspiring and noble words by which to live, especially as the were formulated in the era when Europe was a firestorm of warring states, Pavel Petrovich was Tsar of all the Russians and Louis XVI lived high on the hog in Versailles, sustained by his impoverished peasants.
But America built its noble Constitution on false premises. Leave aside the “all men” did not include black slaves or even native Americans, the idea that the revolution was a fight against tyranny is stretching a point rather far. Up until the mid-18th century, the American colonies had suffered no more than benign neglect. Although each was nominally run by a Governor appointed by the Crown in London, the real power lay in the colonial assemblies, who raised finance and printed (illegal) money to fight natives, and make local laws, etc. Each colony pretty much ignored the others until 1754 to organise defence for what they called the French and Indian was but the British refer to as “The Seven Years War”.
With the fall of Quebec in 1759, the threats from Canada in the north and Florida in the south cleared away any lingering threat from France or Spain and the British government, saddled with a national debt twice its original size, made moves for the colonists to contribute to their own defence, as it was now on a minor scale. The colonists railed against, and the Navigation Acts and evaded duty by smuggling, even going so far as to smuggle supplies to French islands in the Caribbean while the war was still on. They also resented a demarcation line for their western boundary down the spine of the Appalachians to minimise further costly wars with natives. These infringements of their rights, as the colonists saw it, were further exacerbated when, in 1765 a congress to oppose the Stamp Act harmonised opposition to being taxed at all.
King “Farmer” George III was active in ruling, so he and his Prime Minister Lord North, having no direct experience of the colonies, decided laws must be enforced. The colonists were well off as things stood. Apart from enjoying wider freedoms, they had bigger, richer farms than in Britain, they paid an average of 1 shilling a year in tax, as against the British average of 26 shillings.
Communication involving two-month voyages across 3,000 miles of ocean were badly placed to defuse the cultural drift apart. What the British saw as firm and fair government, the colonists saw as oppressive, The colonists saw the British in terms of the repressive catholic Stuarts, from whom many had fled, and so regarded British rule as “tyranny”. Despite provocation like Rhode Island’s burning of a revenue cutter, the British tried conciliation. But the Boston Tea Party’s destruction of a fortune made hostilities inevitable. inevitable.
In the interests of trade, the new American republic was nothing, if not pragmatic. Despite the war if 1812, trade with Britain actually increased. Much of the industrial wealth of Glasgow and Manchester rested on American tobacco and cotton trade. The prospect of enhancing those riches were the wellspring of the American Dream. With the Louisiana Purchase, the idea of a firm frontier was history. With only the natives as resistance, pioneers flooded west in search of it. New territories that became new states unrolled west like a carpet, with neither Mexico nor Russia able to stand in the way.
Huge industries and massive wealth were created out of nothing: the industries of Pennsylvania; the cornfields of Iowa; the oilfields of Texas and Oklahoma; the wheat fields of Kansas; the orchards of California; the automobiles of Michigan created widespread wealth.
But, as the states filled the space between oceans, a change came. With eyes on the yet-un-built Panama canal, the Monroe doctrine looked beyond the borders to declare the Americas a zone of exclusive interest. As a former colony made good, the USA portrayed itself as an anti-colonial power that, thanks to excessive testosterone from W.R. Hearst and Teddy Roosevelt fabricated a war with Spain and wound up with colonies of its own. This was the era of United Fruit and the banana republics, modelled on the corporate colonisation of Hawaii by the Dole corporation.
It was due to such local domination and the vastness of their own country that Americans understandably became convinced of the superiority of both their political and their commercial systems. Two world wars that decimated Europe and brought down any global competitor also spawned their lead in aerospace and electronics that hatched new highly profitable businesses that continue to this day in the shape of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Tesla, etc.. Little wonder that many middle-class Americans still believe the Dream is alive and well.
But the belief that each generation can earn ever-expanding riches, that the poorest child of the poorest immigrant can build a corporation or become president has, unfortunately, become delusion. For the ides of unbridled liberty, born of the revolution and unlimited riches from the scale of the continent has had its day. there is no more frontier to exploits—space is much too expensive and Alaska much too cold to offer another California Gold Rush.
The real problem is that nobody is prepared to admit this. The politicians don’t want to because their whole pitch is based on America’s greatness, with Trump being the worst offender. The rich have no interest in undermining their wealth and so shelter behind Republican efforts to preserve this in law. The middle class have a share in the still-immense wealth of a great country and believe hard work, dedication and a little luck will bring them further riches. Even a large chunk of the white working class believe that a $20/hour job on a Detroit assembly line giving them a garage full of quad bikes and a motor home in the drive like their dad had is still possible. Even some of the urban poor, whether a chicano sub-class in LA or a black sub-class on the south side of Chicago cling to such hopes.
All of them are cocooned in a society that has taught that America is the nirvana, to which the rest of the world aspires. Very few travel outside of their country to find out the truth. Most of those who do travel see the world from their room in a Sheraton or their balcony on a cruise ship, or even the cockpit of an Apache gunship. Getting under the skin of another country is largely left to young backpackers.
Now that the physical boundaries of the country and the limits of its resources have been reached, the American Dream will have to adapt to limits imposed by the rest of the planet. It’s hard to see how it can do that. Large houses, cheap fuel, disposable goods and air travel cannot be made available to 8 billion people. It’s not even available to all 335 million Americans. In fact, many millions of mostly non-white Americans don’t enjoy such riches anyway—and their number is growing.
Demographic dinosaurs like Trump may appeal to increasingly disgruntled whites that America can be great again, but it is not based on the realities of a dominant and more efficient China and similar lower-wage/less demanding producers among the other BRICs. So far, the growing disenfranchised masses in America have been kept quiet by their own hope of achieving The Dream. But, as generation upon generation fails to move closer to achieving it and those who have build homogeneous suburbs and gated communities and send their kids to the schools/universities that repeat their own high salaries, the belief in any common dream will die.
It will not lead to another 1776. But the combination of a wholly irascible president who embodies the worst traits of materialism with the demographically dispossessed flexing their civic muscles through Black Lives Matter will lead to stresses in American civic like that make Roe v Wade and the Selma march seem mild until a realistic dream—one again shared by all—can be conceived and believed in.
Until then, the dream is delusion.