Revising the American Dream

"All Americans have a duty to defend the American dream."

Who, might you ask, recently bellowed these words to a packed house of cheering, concerned citizens?

A GOP leader? Maybe one of the up-and-comers, held up as evidence of the American dream's continued existence, like Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina? A Tea Party patriot, like Minnesota's Rep. Michelle Bachman? Or a conservative pundit perhaps? Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck?

In fact, it was none other than green-jobs guru, Van Jones. Jones, given the opportunity to speak at the Guiding Lights Weekend, a conference on engaged citizenship in Seattle on March 26, decided to set his sights on what might, at first, seem an unusual project for a man famously positioned as anti-American by a Fox-powered witch hunt circa August 2009. (Beck made a big fuss over an anti-war petition that Jones was accused of signing post-9/11, which included some conspiracy theory-type language; shortly thereafter, Jones resigned from his post as green-jobs czar in the Obama administration.)

What Jones calls a "strange patriotism" has been dominating the airwaves as of late. This version of patriotism, manifesting in Tea Party rallies and other conservative conventions, positions as its enemy, quite ironically, the U.S. government itself, continuously painted as too large, too intellectual, and too interested in -- gasp -- helping people. The call from progressives -- like Jones and Eric Liu, author of The True Patriot and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend -- to reclaim patriotism and its most salient story, the American dream, is an important and apt message for these tough economic times. As the wealth gap yawns wider and wider -- the widest, in fact, that it's been since 1928 -- it's critical that citizens feel as if they have a real, not a fantastical, path to more economic security and a renewed faith in the potential of a higher quality of life for their children.

Jones' perspective on that most disputed of beloved tropes, the American dream, has evolved over time. While at Yale, Jones couldn't help but notice that his law school buddies were suffering vastly different consequences when caught with drugs than were their peers from black neighborhoods in New Haven. It made him angry at America. He explains, "I got this idea that progress and patriotism didn't go together."

But the older Jones gets, the more he's realized that, though conditions aren't perfect in this polity we call home, we can be proud of America. As he's traveled, speaking on the importance of economic opportunities in the new green economy for America's most underutilized and historically oppressed people, he's seen a nation that actually embodies many of the principles for which his parents and grandparents fought. "It's the progressive patriots whose America has triumphed," Jones says, citing the existence of federal safety nets, like Social Security and Medicare, and shifting attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality.

The young man who once railed against injustice, who struggled to say something good about the country he was born and raised in, has changed his tune: "It's just as foolish to say that America has never done anything wrong as to say that America has never done anything right."

The American dream, as an ethos, has roots that go back to this country's founding, but it emerged as a popular concept with historian James Truslow Adams' 1931 book, Epic of America, in which he wrote that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

There's a whole lot of room for disagreement in that one little sentence. For starters, what constitutes a better, richer, fuller life? Surely no one -- progressive or conservative -- would argue that the quality of a life can be measured by money alone, and yet, so often, this is the subtext of the American dream -- that rags-to-riches story performed with great melodrama during campaign season.

Jones finished his inspired address at the Guiding Lights Weekend by relaying the wisdom of his own father, Willie Jones, who once told him that it is each and every American's responsibility to climb up the ladder of success, but it is the nation's responsibility to provide the ladder. While I like Willie's way with metaphor, I couldn't help imagining how much farther some of us have to climb than others, simply based on where and to whom we are born.

Andrea Levere, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development and a speaker at the Guiding Lights Weekend, told the audience that one out of every four Americans can trace their wealth directly back to the Homestead Act of 1862. Sociologist Dalton Conley's work underscores that success is really not about the income earned from hard work. He told PBS: "No other measure captures the legacy -- the cumulative disadvantage of race for minorities or cumulative advantage of race for whites -- than net worth or wealth." The average black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family.

If progressives are going to ethically reclaim the American dream, we'll have to rewrite its subtext and acknowledge both our faults and successes. Yes, America is a land of vast and titillating opportunity, and we don't all have the same access to those opportunities. Yes, we are one of the freest and most just nations on earth, and we are also unacceptably cruel and violent -- the highest incarcerators with the biggest military force on the planet. Yes, we each have the joy and personal responsibility to shape a good life and we still seem largely confused about what that really means (social science, in contrast to the political rhetoric, tells us that it's much more about relationships than finances).

Perhaps the real, progressive American dream is a sustained faith and inspired action toward closing the chasm between who we want to be and who we really are, both individually and as a nation. Perhaps the real, progressive patriot is one with the sobriety to admit how far we are from where we want to be and the audacity to believe that we can and will get there. Liu writes in The True Patriot, "Across the span of centuries, America has embodied the very essence of human striving: we have set forth great ideals and have tried to live by them. We have sometimes faltered, sometimes failed. We have always tried again."