The American Dream Has Become The American Nightmare

The American dream is what pushed immigrants to brave the perils of an Atlantic crossing in search of a better life in the United States and drove pioneers as they crossed miles of plains determined to settle the American west. The American dream is what built the suburbs and inspired the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the American dream that built our country has become the American nightmare that could destroy it.

In the late 1960s, the population began to wake from the American dream thanks to increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, followed by the Watergate Scandal of the early 1970s. The latter part of that decade brought a further awakening, as industry-based communities across the nation began crumbling. By the time of the Reagan Recovery of the early 1980s, people in many parts of the country didn’t have time for the American dream, because they were spending every hour just trying to stay afloat.

Death of the American Dream [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]In the 1980s, the death of the American dream became a common source of inspiration for musicians, whose words spoke directly to the countless Americans who were struggling. Bruce Springsteen, in “Born in the U.S.A.,” tells of a Vietnam vet returning to the Rust Belt, where he could find no work and no sympathy. While Springsteen was speaking for the industrial Northeast, John Mellencamp was putting feelings into words for the farmers in the Midwest in his “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Both artists painted pictures of a decade that was very different from the one presented by the television of the time on shows like “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.”

It is important to note that the 1980s’ reputation as the decade of excess was, for the majority of Americans, only an illusion. Reaganomics brought economic recovery, but the ones who truly benefited were the Wall Street types and the heads of big business. For the average American, times were harder in the 1980s than ever before thanks to high interest rates and stagnant wages. In fact, owning a home, a cornerstone of the post-war American dream, became less of a possibility than ever before.

The American dream is dead [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]By the 1990s, the average American had become disillusioned. According to research headed by John Zogby of Zigby International and published by BBC News in 2011, in 1999, only one-third of Americans described the American Dream in terms of financial success. Of the remaining two-thirds, half saw the American dream more as an obligation to leave a legacy, including a better world, both environmentally and culturally. Meanwhile, the remainder of Americans were split into two groups: the first thought the American dream was possible for some, but not them, and the other saw the American dream as “simply dead.”

Today, the American dream has changed again, but, to many, it looks more like the American nightmare. Gone are the days when the American dream was a house in the suburbs, a nice car, 2.2 children and a dog. Today, the American dream is fame − and not just Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes.

Since MTV’s Real World debuted in 1992, reality TV has given the average American, if not the opportunity to become famous, the ability to believe fame possible. The founding of MySpace in 2003, followed by Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005, made it possible for people create aggrandized online personas and created a culture of shameless self-promotion.

American nightmare example [Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images]Today, the American dream has little to do with reality and much to do with perception. People put forth idealized versions of themselves that are not exactly lies but are nowhere near truths. Today, the American dream does not require a good job or a nice house or a new car; the American dream merely requires that it looks like one has a good job − or, even better, no job − a nice house and a new car.

For a population whose collective ideal is based in fiction, the most surprising part is society’s affection for the truth. Rapper and actor Ice Cube recently appeared on Bloomberg’s With All Due Respect and explained today’s version of the American dream quite well.

“Donald Trump is what Americans aspire to be − rich, powerful, do what you wanna do, say what you wanna say, be how you wanna be. That’s kind of been like the American dream.”

Today’s American dream is to avoid expending any effort by building a carefully crafted illusion that will lead to fame, power and riches, which will, in turn, allow one to speak one’s mind with a complete lack of concern for reality or others’ feelings. Truth built on lies. It sounds like an American nightmare to me.

[Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images]