The crisis of the American dream

I’ve written in earlier posts about the shift from the first American Dream to the second: from the family farm to the suburban “homestead.” It was a profound change in American life and culture that has not yet been fully explored. The family farm integrated production and consumption, work and leisure, family and business. The family wasn’t just a union of sentiment: it was an element of production. Mom and Dad worked as a team to feed, house and clothe the family, and as the kids grew up they took on greater and greater responsibilities in the common effort. Their lives at home prepared them for the new lives they would lead on their own: the kids would grow up, marry, and start farms…

Today the 20th century model of the American dream faces the same kind of crisis the 19th century version experienced 100 years ago. International competition and technological advances mean that the American factory worker’s earnings and opportunities are depressed in the way farmers were going to the wall 100 years ago. In the last twenty years, well-intentioned government efforts to put more people in owner-occupied housing led to a housing bubble and mass bankruptcies in the face of a financial panic and the ensuing recession, the worst in eighty years.

Our political battles today reflect the same kinds of frustrations we saw in the old populist era. Many cannot fathom another and “higher” form of the American Dream beyond the old crabgrass utopia. They want to turn back the clock and restore the old system because they don’t know of anything else that will work. The explicit political demand for this kind of restoration is usually found on the left, where it is often coupled with demands for the protection of American industries from foreign competition. But nostalgia for the old days isn’t just a left wing emotion; a free floating anger stemming from the breakdown of a broadly accepted social model helps power political currents on both ends of the spectrum.