Cal Thomas's newest column is a polemic provoked by the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's comment that "However you want to define the American dream, there is not much of it that's left anymore." Thomas doesn't dispute the point, except to argue that the definition of the "American dream" makes a difference. He agrees that there's not much left of Herbert's "version of the American dream -- as opposed to the original dream, which remains for those who would embrace it." Herbert's is "liberalism's American dream," which has proved unsustainable. Thomas equates the "liberal" American dream with an "entitlement mentality" that "has produced a country of government addicts" devoid of "self-reliance, individual initiative and personal accountability." For Thomas, this is a dream in the worst sense of the word. "People who believe a politician of whatever party or persuasion can make their life better than individual initiative [can] are doing more than dreaming," he writes, "such persons are displaying cult-like faith, which can never be fulfilled."
Thomas offers the vaguest definition of the "original" American dream -- "basically it has meant building a life based on the foundational principles that created and have sustained America for more than 200 years," with a corollary expectation that "a new generation [will] achieve a better life than their parents and grandparents experienced." He goes into more detail listing the "rules for achieving the American dream." These include; staying in school at least until you get a bachelor's degree; saying no to drugs; getting and staying married "to benefit society;" demonstrating "personal honesty and professional integrity;" and, perhaps most importantly to people like Thomas, "saving and investing for retirement so as not to burden taxpayers and relatives [and] living within one's means."
However we want to define the American dream, how did Bob Herbert define it? Here's the key excerpt from his column, unquoted by Thomas: "the U.S. needs to develop a full-employment economy that provides jobs for all who want to work at pay that enables the workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living. In other words, a resurrection of the American dream."
How does Herbert's dream differ from Thomas's? The difference lies in what Thomas might identify as the implicit "entitlement" to a "decent standard of living." Thomas would say that, if you work hard, you can enjoy a decent standard of living. As a philosophical conservative, however, he won't guarantee it. We can infer from Herbert an expectation that, if you work hard, you should enjoy a decent standard of living. We don't need to infer the rest; Herbert writes explicitly that it's the state's business to ensure that workers live decently. From Thomas, we can infer the criticism that any dependence upon the state undermines the self-reliance upon which any hope for a decent standard of living must rest exclusively.
Now comes my title question: what is particularly American about either dream? In Thomas's case, does he think that no other people dream of improving their lives through hard work? For that matter, what even makes his "dream" a dream? "Work hard and you may prosper" isn't very dreamlike if you think about it. Herbert's dream begs similar questions. Does no other nation dream of making a "decent standard of living" possible for all its hard-working people?
There is something arguably American to Thomas's dream, even if he doesn't express it clearly. It follows from an assumption that, before the American Revolution, people everywhere were held back by arbitrary powers, kings and aristocrats (and churches) from doing all they could to improve their lives. That was probably true, but for a new nation to do things differently required conscious action to order society so arbitrary powers wouldn't hold citizens back. Opportunity for individuals depended on collective political action. Self-government isn't the same as no government, though the distinction is lost on many Americans today. People like Thomas think the whole point of the American project was individual opportunity, but they miss the more important point, and more important project, of democratizing government. They can be excused, to an extent, because we've been sold an "American dream" defined almost exclusively in terms of personal prosperity for a long time now. The American dream of 1776 and 1787, however, was more a matter of popular sovereignty, of people coming together to order society as they see fit. To go back to Herbert's dream, ordering society to ensure that people are rewarded for work and aren't left hostages to chance is a legitimate exercise of popular sovereignty, even if it seems to burden some taxpayers more than they like. It may not be an exclusively or originally an American dream, but there's nothing wrong with Americans claiming it as their own.