15 February 2013

The American Dream is an elusive idea. It means something different to nearly every American, and its meaning has changed over time. Home ownership became achievable for working and middle class people in the post-WWII era, and owning your own home was synonymous with the American Dream for a time. Generally, though, the American Dream is to be able to attain freedom and prosperity.

The health of the American Dream is constantly being debated. Innumerable cynics have written obituaries for the Dream. In times of great inequality, the health of the Dream is frequently questioned. While it is clear the American Dream exists, the exact meaning is hard to determine.
Common to all definitions is a sense of striving. Striving is central to the national character of this country that defeated the world super power to gain its freedom. Existence in America has always required a great deal of striving. Most of the first British colonists died, and those that came after had to eke out a living. Though it is not true, Americans see themselves as a people who are constantly taming the frontier. In order to settle what would become America, a great deal of taming was required. Conquering the frontier, therefore, seems central to the American Dream.

Though the physical frontier was mostly conquered by the dawn of the 20th century, there have always been new frontiers the tame. Industrialization imposed a rational order on the resources that were extracted from the conquered frontier. This rationalization allowed for people of all classes to have leisure time during which they were free to pursue their interests. Though industrialization provided a rational order for processing resources, it did not immediately provide for a rational social order.

Organizing a society that could reap the benefits of industrialization while mitigating the destabilizing forces within it was the next frontier. The various reform activities of the Progressive Era set out to rationalize the rest of society and make it livable. Government imposed restrictions on businesses that curbed the most egregious excesses of industrial capitalism. What remained was the rationalization of the workforce.

An individual worker had no power to better his or her lot in the face of a large corporation or trust. To remedy this power imbalance, workers had been trying to organize themselves since the beginning of industrialization. Bosses fought these efforts as they knew that an organized workforce would take away their power. Finally with the New Deal, organizing unskilled industrial workers was possible, and by the 1950s one third of workers were in unions.

The New Deal finished the work of the Progressive Era in taming the excesses of industrialization. It established a precedent for government intervention in the inevitable cyclical downfalls of industrial capitalism. The principles of the New Deal provided for a winning strategy for World War Two.

A GI who fought facism could attend college. The GI Bill marked an unprecedented expansion of higher education. College was no longer affordable only for the wealthy. These newly educated citizens provided a productive workforce for the large stable corporations that fueled post-war prosperity.

By the 1950s, then, it seemed that many frontiers had been conquered. Government regulation made industrialization safe for most. Unions bargained for higher wages and established a working middle class. The newly educated middle class was exposed to arts and culture and there was an explosion of interest in these things.

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