In a 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl, incoming House Speaker John Boehner spoke about chasing the American Dream, working his way up from a poor Ohio family to starting his own business and becoming a millionaire. Referring to the national debt, he said it was important that kids "have a shot at the American Dream like I did."
The term "American Dream" has become a major part of American's national identity, tossed around by politicians and marketers alike. The idea has its roots in the Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But the term was coined in 1931 by historian James Truslow Adams. In The Epic of America (1931) he wrote about "[a] dream of social order in which each " shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
Today, America is viewed as the land of infinite possibility. The American Dream has become the promise of achieving material success. Implied is the concept that all have the potential to succeed. Everyone can prosper through thrift and hard work. The "rags to riches" legend has become a cornerstone of modern American society. In an interview with Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, Boehner said, "Work hard. Dream big. You can do anything you want to do."
But while some, like John Boehner, are able to rise from poverty to become a millionaire, the message that everyone can do that if they try hard enough simply isn't true. Brian Williams asked Speaker Boehner: "The kid who's 16 in Ohio, writes you on Facebook, Mr. Speaker, how do I do what you just did? Who's gonna give me the shot? Who's gonna give me the chance?" Speaker Boehmer replied by restating his belief that hard work is all you need: "There's nothing in this world you can't accomplish, nothing that you can't succeed at; if you're willing to work hard enough and are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary."
But, Speaker Boehner, we're not all equal. We all have limitations. The playing field isn't level. Today, who you know is more important than what you know. Some have connections - someone else (a wealthy relative, spouse, business partner) provided opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise. Some are just lucky - some event provided them a windfall. Some are smarter than others. Some have talents in music, art, or sports. For many hardworking, thrifty Americans, the world is full of prejudice, bias, ignorance, intolerance. Their American Dream remains elusive.
President Obama shared a different view of the American Dream:
"What is unique about America is that we want these dreams for more than ourselves -- we want them for each other. That's why we call it the American dream. We want it for the kid who doesn't go to college because she cannot afford it; for the worker who is wondering if his wages will pay this winter's heating bill; for million Americans living without health care; for the millions more who worry if they have enough to retire with the dignity they have earned.
When our fellow Americans are denied the American dream, our own dreams are diminished. And today, the cost of that dream is rising faster than ever before. While some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle class Americans -- as well as those working hard to become middle class -- are seeing the American dream slip further and further away.... "
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." The ultimate form of success is not where we live or how we make a living, but sharing our gifts and using our talents to benefit others.
We're happiest when we lead meaningful, fulfilling lives". when we make time for family, friends, and community. We all must work to understand each other, to level the playing field, to make the world a better place for all.