The American Dream is a singularly optimistic concept. But what happens when it runs headlong into dissatisfaction with America’s current condition, where the RealClearPolitics poll of polls shows two-thirds of Americans think our country is on the wrong track?
When it comes to Trump-to-Biden swing voters, there’s cause for concern about the state of the American Dream when day-to-day worries predominate. But there’s also room for optimism and renewal.
First, the concern. On July 11, we asked 13 Minnesota swing voters how they’d define the American Dream. What we discovered was a general lack of consensus over what it is exactly.
For Chyresse G., from Brooklyn Center, the American Dream symbolized “No differences in colors, financials, no differences in the way that different nationalities are treated or addressed.” To Jacki T. of Woodbury, it meant “having a home and a family and feeling safe and secure crime-wise and financially.” Some had loftier expectations. Cyndi H., from Inver Grove Heights, said, “My vision of it would be to have everything you need, maybe everything you need and or want.” Many Minnesota swing voters mentioned the notion of financial security, home ownership, and access to higher education as essential to the dream. Aside from these common themes, however, no two answers were alike.
We also asked respondents whether they felt that they had experienced the American Dream. Only seven of 13 said they did. The six others noted some factors that have hindered their ability to attain it. Ramya K., a 42-year-old from Plymouth, touched on the economy as one such factor, saying, “Inflation rates… interest rates, I mean the education cost, everything has increased.” Given the hefty price tag for a college education, as well as the increasing costs of goods, many swing voters echoed Ramya’s sentiments. Some feel that financial security is harder to achieve than ever, a critical insight considering many swing voters included that term within their definitions of the American Dream. Crystal T., from Robbinsdale, noted that this dream is reasonable only for people who “have the economic means to pursue more opportunities.”
Perhaps most notable from these groups, in which the youngest participant was 38 years old, was their concern about the future of the American Dream. Of the 13 swing voters, only five believe today’s young people will be able to attain it. What prompts this pessimism?
For most of our respondents, wealth inequalities are a major concern. Ronald C., from Brainerd, stated:
“Almost 20 years of laws that have been passed that are benefiting the wealthiest Americans. Both parties are implicit in it as well. I’m not trying to indict any party on that, but that’s what I believe. So I think the American Dream is there, but it’s been relegated now to the people that could most afford to get it on their own.”
Cristy M. from Montgomery shared similar concerns about the next generation:
“I feel like it’s a perfect storm of nearly being unattainable. So the cost of education, the cost of living. How does a student get themselves through higher education and then get a job that pays what homes cost these days, let alone groceries and all that. To me, the American Dream is also to be able to make ends meet. And without moving back in with mom and dad, I don’t know how you would ever do that straight out of school.”
These perspectives are worrying. The American Dream is about the hope that a better future lies ahead if one seizes opportunities. With hard work, anyone should be able to receive an education, achieve financial security, and own their own home, no matter their background. That those with experience in the workforce have lost that sense of hope speaks volumes about the direction of the American Dream.
But despite these viewpoints, our focus group results also offered hope. As mentioned above, seven said they had attained the American Dream—and reflected on it by conveying appreciation for what they’d achieved.
Jacki T., from Woodbury, cited a few reasons: “I’m a homeowner. I’m a small business owner, and I live in a safe community. I’ve been able to raise my daughters and send them both to college so that they can find careers that they enjoy and follow their passions. I’ve had family around me my whole life.” Mike K., from Eagen, shared, “I was born in Russia, and we came to the United States when I was seven. I was able to get an education, build my career, and buy property. I consider that the American Dream.”
Cristy M., who is concerned about today’s young people, said she herself attained the American Dream: “I was born into a white poor family, but am educated, work a good job, have kids that have access to safe, high-rated schools and live in upper middle class life.”
And Mark B. from Burnsville referenced his financial and personal security:
“Got my own place. I’m not really relying on anybody else or any sort of support. I got a very decent job. It’s a very stable job. Probably not going to go anywhere. Obviously financial wise, everybody could do a little bit better, but…I did just get a significant raise, so that’s going to help me a ton. Crime-wise, I think I’m in a fairly safe area, so even though it’s a bigger city, I still feel pretty safe here.”
The different ways in which people experience the American Dream were not new to Rachel Goslins, executive director of the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, a new cultural organization dedicated to exploring the idea and ideals of the American Dream. “The definition of the American Dream has evolved throughout this nation’s history, and has always been filtered through personal and lived experience. The voices of these swing voters remind us of how important broadly accessible pathways for social and economic mobility are for its continued vitality. There is much to be grateful for but also much work to be done.”
In terms of policies our respondents would like to see implemented to strengthen the American Dream, our participants offered the following. Some wanted legislation to make education more affordable; others wanted more affordable housing options. Felipe I., from St. Paul, proposed that universities forgive student debt, while Cindi H. argued that big companies should increase workers’ wages. Jeff D., from Hugo, offered a different solution. “These kids, they got to have everything. First thing they need to do is get rid of the damn cell phones that they have. They save 300 bucks a month right there. That’s the problem. These kids, they think they need it all.”
It’s often said that legal immigrants to the U.S. are often more bullish on the American Dream than those born here. We wanted to know why swing voters think that’s the case.
Our participants offered a couple of ideas. “I think it’s about perspective. They’re looking at it from the perspective that they had to worry whether they were going to make it through each day, and now those worries are done. That’s a completely different perspective,” noted Dave D. Cristy M. added, “Achieving success is defined differently. It’s not the latest and greatest technology, the largest house, the best car.”
Does this mean that Americans are just spoiled, jaded, and taken for granted that dream which we have strived for? As we found in these focus groups, no two respondents have the same definition of the American Dream. Our notions of it are ever-changing and thus continually elusive. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have said it best, as it seems Americans are seeking something “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” It turns out it’s also critical to building a successful future.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Sago. Jonny Flieder is a student at Haverford College and an intern at Engagious.