With 2012 being a presidential election year, get ready to hear plenty of rhetoric about the mythical, oft-mentioned American Dream.
At some point, the incumbent will tell you he’s busy trying to restore it and make it more accessible to everyone, while the challenger will tell you it’s in danger of disappearing altogether unless he’s elected. But if someone asks what they mean, exactly, when they refer to the American Dream, the person likely will get different answers. Owning a home or starting a small business, one might say. Getting an affordable college education or ensuring fairness for all, the other might reply.
That’s not what people are telling Michael Ford, at least not precisely.
As the founding director of Xavier’s Center for the Study of the American Dream, Ford has spent more time and effort gauging the attitudes and opinions of the public on this particular topic than many politicians. With the help of his staff and students, Ford has discovered that most people share a common, basic definition of what the Dream means, even though it can manifest itself in different ways.
“The fundamental definition of the American Dream is people are seeking a better life for their families. There are many offshoots and variations, but that’s the common denominator,” Ford says. “The American Dream is an attitude, it’s shared by a country, but it’s also a personal statement.”
Since the Center was created in 2007, it has conducted five major surveys assessing how people view the American Dream and whether they think it’s still attainable. Additionally, it issues the monthly American Dream Composite Index that examines whether people are achieving the Dream. The index uses 35 variables that provide insight into economic, political and societal conditions in the U.S. and how people view their own well-being. Each month the composite index includes new snapshot questions—called “eye openers”—designed to examine a particular aspect of American life such as civic literacy, concerns about debt, and attitudes about technology and privacy.
With the effects of the Great Recession still lingering and national unemployment remaining above 8 percent, it would be easy to think belief in the American Dream has wavered. Not so, Ford says.
“Our research shows it’s wrong to conflate the American Dream with the economy. The assumption is the Dream is all about owning a home, but that’s really something that’s been pushed by special interest groups,” he says. “The American Dream stands alone. People have their own individual ambitions, but they’re reasonably created. They are not trying to get rich.”
Ford adds, “It’s even more surprising that the Dream has stood so well during the depths of the recession. The American Dream really is a belief in ideas. It is a belief in possibilities, hard work and individualism.”
What the survey has discovered, however, is that while most people believe in the American Dream, they have little confidence in society’s traditional institutional pillars—government, big business, media and the like—in helping them achieve it. The Center’s work has gained national and international attention with mentions in outlets ranging from cable TV networks like CNN and MSNBC to Time magazine and newspapers including USA Today and London’s Daily Mail. Further, the Center’s data has been used by Dartmouth College, Wake Forest University and the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service.
A new project is the Permanent American Dream Video Archive. Xavier students are tasked with videotaping and compiling individual accounts of people who are pursuing the American Dream in their own ways.
For Ford, the Center is the natural culmination of nearly four decades spent amid political campaigns and in the corridors of government. “I couldn’t bear the way politics was moving,” Ford says about his decision to leave active campaigning. “The divisiveness, the intensity—it was futile. Right now, it’s like clown school.”
All of the polarization and negative campaigning comes with a cost. In addition to eroding the public’s confidence in major institutions, many Americans don’t understand basic features about their own government. Last spring the Center released its findings from its nationwide survey on civic literacy. It found that one in three native-born Americans failed the civics portion of the naturalization test given to immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. That’s far below the 97.5-percent pass rate among immigrants. Among the shocking results, 59 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single power of the federal government, 82 percent couldn’t cite “two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence,” and 71 percent were unable to identify the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.”
Keeping attention focused on civic literacy and participating in the debate about how to improve it will be part of the Center’s focus in the coming months. “We believe civic literacy is an important protection for the American Dream. It helps us identify and avoid manipulation in politics and emotional, headstrong responses,” Ford says. “The political system is driven by the extremes. The political system will fail if the great mass of citizens don’t stand up and say extremism is unacceptable.”
Ford is optimistic about the future of the nation and its political system but adds any improvement won’t just happen. “It can change but it isn’t enough for us to blame rich people or politicians or special interests,” he says. “This is a republic and it requires public action. More people have to wake up and take on an active role in public life. We are enabling what’s going on right now through our inactivity.”