WASHINGTON — It’s time to retire the American Dream — or at least give it a long vacation. We ought to drop it from our national conversation. This would be a hardship for politicians and pundits, who use “the American Dream” as a rhetorical workhorse embodying goals embraced by almost all Americans. That’s the problem. The American Dream has become so expansive in its meaning that it stifles honest debate and harms some of the very people it is intended to help.
Who can oppose the American Dream? No one. It captures our faith in progress, opportunity and striving. It reflects hopes for a large and stable middle class. Everyone would go to college, become a homeowner. Children would always live better than their parents.
This election often seems a contest over whether President Obama or Mitt Romney can best restore the Dream. To the extent people believe this, one outcome is certain: disappointment. The Dream’s ultimate appeal lies in its promise of personal fulfillment, which can’t be assured.
Curiously, history confirms this. Despite its present popularity, the phrase “the American Dream” came into common use only after the 1970s. By most accounts, historian James Truslow Adams coined it in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.” Adams imagined a “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.”