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The American Dream Is Not in Decline

FOR some time now, the idea that the ``American dream'' is weakening or dying has been in the air. Commentators lament a perceived relative economic decline so profound that it might erode America as a successful society. In both the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, Democratic candidates saw national hopes and expectations at risk. Now at least one Republican candidate for the presidency in 1996, former education secretary Lamar Alexander, is arguing the ``dream'' is eroding as families cry out for better schools and worry they will be unable to maintain the same standard of living their parents did.

Because the US is a creedal nation - founded on social and political ideals rather than ethnicity - and incorporates people of enormously diverse cultural backgrounds, even a substantial weakening of the ideas and expectations associated with the American dream would threaten the fabric of American nationality.

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But is this happening?

At the core of the ideology on which America was founded is an extraordinary and far-reaching individualism that pervades and shapes all the other American values, giving them their distinctive cast. Survey data show no weakening of American individualism and no substantial change in its fabric. We continue to believe that individuals should be judged on what they do, that their performance should determine the extent of their rewards, and that great inequalities of result are thus to be countenanced. We believe that proper recognition of the individual requires that rights to private property be sustained.

While there is a large place for government, excessive government is a threat to individual liberty and prosperity. From this we continue to support a constitutional system that envelopes the modern state in an elaborate system of checks and balances. We stand out in the family of industrial nations by our relative reluctance to use the state for social welfare purposes, and by our belief in individual action.

It might be, of course, that even if these fundamental beliefs are unchanging, we have lost confidence in their efficacy. The American ideology posits a system of moral legitimacy - but it also implies a practical faith that a society so constituted can succeed and indeed surpass any rival. With much of the world now embracing large elements of America's great idea - that markets work economically and democracy works politically - it would be ironic if we were to lose confidence in them.

Yet a mountain of recent survey data indicate we retain this confidence. When survey organizations ask whether people get ahead through luck or by whom they know - or whether their success is based on their own effort - large majorities say the latter. Similarly, we continue to affirm the belief that we can get ahead through hard work. We express satisfaction with our jobs, our family life, our standard of living. Most of us continue to say that we have achieved the place we deserve.

Many Americans are dissatisfied with aspects of current national performance. We should be. But there is no empirical base for suggesting that levels of dissatisfaction are now unusually high.

Patterns and objects of dissatisfaction continue to shift over time. Today, there is much dissatisfaction with important aspects of governmental performance - to an extent greater than we encountered at any point from the 1930s to the 1970s. We shouldn't minimize this. But nothing here suggests a decline in either the legitimacy of the nation's founding ideas or in their perceived practical utility.

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Survey data do indicate a large discrepancy between our sense of how things are going in areas we personally observe and in the country at large. Pollster Frank Luntz suggests the number of people who feel things are on the wrong track drops when they are asked about issues closer to home, community, and state.

Why is this disjuncture so large, and what significance, if any, should we attach to it? One hypothesis, which Mr. Luntz himself entertains, is that national shortcomings are uniquely severe at the present time.

But other hypotheses vie for consideration. Some feel contemporary mass media immerses the public, to an unprecedented extent, in failure stories involving the economy, schools, and crime. We don't buy the entire picture. But we are in some sense influenced by it and thus moved toward a more pessimistic outlook. In areas we know through direct personal experience, however, the media presentation of the global picture is irrelevant. And, if we are fairly satisfied by what we see, this comes through unfiltered.

If the alternate hypothesis is more or less correct, the end product should be a society more anxious about its status than it otherwise might be, but hardly prepared to give up on its founding hopes and ideals. This is, in fact, almost exactly what survey research in the last 20 years has found.

The American dream is alive and well, according to the data. More precisely, the American ideology is fundamentally strong, and continues to show in the present era the resilience it has had over the past two centuries. Americans worry about deficiencies in their performance. But the great majority show no fundamental loss of confidence in either the moral worth of their society's fundamental organization or its capacity to help them achieve - as much as any can - the best possible earthly life.

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