Politics & Policy

American Dream Momentum

Freedom joins financial security in a telling study.

A new study suggests that this presidential election may be as much about freedom as anything else, with those placing the highest value on it increasingly identifying with the Republican party.

The report, “The American Dream in 2004,” was commissioned by the National League of Cities. It is based on a national public-opinion survey completed in August. The purpose of the report was to find out whether people still believe in the American Dream, whether it is still achievable, and what it means.

The good news is that 63 percent of Americans believe that they are presently living the American Dream. Moreover, 62 percent believe that it is achievable for most Americans and 65 percent think their children have a good shot at it. Even among those who say they are not living the American Dream, 42 percent are fairly confident that they will achieve it some day.

Of course, the American Dream means different things to different people. For most it means a good job and financial security. But, somewhat surprisingly, living in freedom came in second. And when people were given a chance to mention what they felt are the two most important factors in the American Dream, living in freedom was the most frequently mentioned.

Among those who cite freedom as an essential element of the American Dream, young people were most likely to list it as number one. Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 cited living in freedom as the key element of the American Dream 45 percent of the time. By contrast, only 24 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64 put freedom at the top of their list.

Race, sex, income, and education also play a role in how important freedom is to the American Dream. Whites are more likely to see it as important, blacks and Hispanics less so. Men are more likely than women to cite the importance of freedom, and those with higher incomes and education are more likely to do so than those with less.

Politically, 44 percent of Republicans say that freedom defines the American Dream, while only 29 percent of Democrats do.

When asked about barriers to the American Dream, poor public education topped the list for every group except blacks, who cited racial discrimination. Younger people are more likely to put poor education at the top of their list than older people, perhaps because they are closer to it and because our educational system has deteriorated since many older people were in school.

Although most people think governments should help people live the American Dream, a rising number of people see government as the main barrier to achieving it. In 2001, 34 percent of people thought that government programs did more to hinder than help them in achieving the American Dream. This year, 45 percent saw government as more of a hindrance than a helper.

Interestingly, limits on freedom was listed as a significant barrier to the American Dream by 10 percent of respondents, twice the number of those who cited where they live as a major barrier.

When asked about the biggest dilemmas in their local area, crime and crime-related problems such as drugs came in first by a wide margin. Among economic issues, unemployment was first, but this was cited by only 7 percent of the sample. Taxes were second, above health care, sprawl, poverty, and the cost of living. Interestingly, terrorism didn’t even register and such hot-button issues as the environment, racism, and declining morality were listed by just 1 percent of respondents.

The idea of an American Dream may seem corny or outmoded by elites, but it is something that still resonates powerfully with average people. Great leaders like Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan understood this implicitly, which is a key reason why their words connected with the American people so deeply.

Though there are some who would like to turn the American Dream into just another welfare entitlement, Americans still understand the central insight of Dr. King, who explained in one of his great sermons that the American Dream is fundamentally about freedom and rights derived from God, not handouts from government: “It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state. … They are God-given, gifts from His hands.”

It is not often discussed, but a central difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is their differing concepts of the American Dream and its relationship to freedom. It is clear that the American people perceive this difference and have chosen their party loyalties partly on this basis. Increasingly, those who stand with Dr. King’s vision now find themselves in the Republican party.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.


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