How would you define the American dream? Many would say it’s the opportunity to give your children a better life than the one you had growing up, or to achieve a higher level of education and wealth than your parents did through honest hard work. Our definition of the American dream today seems to boil down to social mobility, a topic attracting increasing attention from both liberal and conservative lawmakers as well as economists and other scholars.
But the common understanding of the American dream may have been different in earlier centuries. In his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (published posthumously), Christopher Lasch argued that we once defined it quite differently, and that our contemporary focus on social mobility “measures the recession of the dream and not its fulfillment.” The phrase “social mobility” became common as recently as the mid-twentieth century, he points out, and nineteenth-century politicians praised not America’s social mobility but its social equality (which stood in contrast to the rigid social hierarchies that prevailed in Europe).
A democratic society was then defined, Lasch writes, not “by the chance to rise in the social scale so much as the complete absence of a scale that clearly distinguished commoners from gentlemen.” At the same time, this equality was not just about wealth but about “the distribution of intelligence and competence. . . . Opportunity, as many Americans understood it, was a matter more of intellectual than of material enrichment.” Especially relative to European peasants, even poor American farmers and laborers were educated and active citizens (according not only to Americans themselves but also to European observers).
This ideal was never entirely a reality, most glaringly so in the case of racial minorities, but the fact that an egalitarian, universally educated society was the widespread ideal remains significant, Lasch contended. Only as the economy evolved late in the nineteenth century—making claims about Americans’ equality of condition (even) less credible than before—did opportunity come “to be widely associated with the achievement of superior standing in an increasingly stratified, money-mad, and class-conscious society.”
Whether Lasch is correct about the historical definition of the American dream I am not qualified to say. But I believe his criticism of the ideal of social mobility has merit. If life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is bad enough that our lack of mobility is a “major problem” in the eyes of Americans, then we should do more than help a larger minority of low-income people to escape it. After all, no matter how much mobility we have, there will always be people at the bottom.
Equally compelling is Lasch’s argument that the definition of an egalitarian society once went beyond a relatively equal distribution of wealth to include a wide distribution of “intelligence and competence.” “Citizenship,” he wrote, “appeared to have given even the humbler members of society access to the knowledge and cultivation elsewhere reserved for the privileged classes.” Reviving civic involvement and widening access to good education may be more difficult tasks than improving the material situation of the poor, but they are just as crucial to the formation of an egalitarian, democratic society.
I would add one more element, unmentioned by Lasch (update: unmentioned in the essay I’ve been quoting, that is), that such a society requires: strong families. The wealthy today stand a good chance of forming lasting marriages, and their children typically do not see their parents break up; both generations reap benefits from this stability. Yet among Americans with less than a college degree, divorce remains common, having children outside of marriage is the new normal, and an increasing number of kids see their parents repeatedly start and end new romantic relationships (with unsurprising negative consequences for the kids’ mental health and academic achievement). In a strong democratic society, a stable, loving family would not be a luxury good. Enabling more Americans to form such families—as most surely hope to do—is yet more complicated than improving schools, but if we aspire to reviving the American dream as Lasch defines it, then it’s not an optional task.