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Trump keeps invoking the ‘American Dream.’ Americans are pessimistic that they can achieve it.

That makes them less likely to respond to rhetoric about it.

- September 20, 2020

The “American Dream” has been a recurring theme in President Trump’s rhetoric. He invoked it in announcing his bid for the presidency, saying, “Sadly, the American Dream is dead. But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before and we will make America great again.” He celebrated its return in a speech in February to the Conservative Political Action Conference, saying, “The American Dream is back bigger, better and stronger than ever before.”

And recently, he has invoked it in his law-and-order-focused tweets, saying: “Suburban voters are pouring into the Republican Party because of the violence in Democrat run cities and states. If Biden gets in, this violence is ‘coming to the Suburbs’, and FAST. You could say goodbye to your American Dream!”

Of course, the American Dream is part of the political discourse for both the left and the right. Richard Nixon invoked the American Dream in accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Democrat Jimmy Carter mentioned it in his inaugural address in 1977. Ronald Reagan invoked it in his 1980s prime-time addresses to the nation. Barack Obama embraced it in his book “The Audacity of Hope.”

But Trump’s comments are more narrowly targeted than those broader appeals from the past, which spoke only of the strength of the American Dream. Trump aims his comments at suburban voters, arguing that a Democratic presidency would threaten that 1950s American ideal of owning a house in the suburbs, surrounded by a white picket fence. Homeownership has long been described as “owning a piece of the American Dream.”

Will Trump’s rhetoric about the American Dream resonate with suburban voters? Even as people widely endorse the vision of an America in which they can achieve a better life through hard work, this dream seems increasingly out of reach.

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How we did our research

In our recent article “The Dynamic American Dream,” we take stock of how Americans perceive the promise of achieving the American Dream.

We developed a new measure of what the electorate thinks about the viability of the American Dream and explore why it changes over time. Our measure combines every survey from the Roper Center’s archive of public opinion data that asks whether people think the American Dream is still possible. We drew on questions like, “Do you think it is still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich?” and “The American Dream has become impossible for most people to achieve.” We used 77 questions that were asked 533 times between 1973 and 2018 to build a single quarterly measure of the public’s belief in the promise of the American Dream.

How Americans perceive
How Americans perceive “the American Dream”

Figure: Jennifer Wolak and David A.M. Peterson.

Faith in the American Dream rises and falls with the economy

Over the past 50 years, we find that Americans’ belief in the viability of the American Dream has waxed and waned. It was lowest when Nixon resigned in the third quarter of 1974 and highest in the fourth quarter of 1984, as Reagan was campaigning for his second term, saying it was “morning in America.”

Belief in the promise of the American Dream responds to how attainable people think it is. When more Americans own their homes, the U.S. public expresses greater optimism about the viability of the American Dream. In this, Trump’s messaging on suburban life and the American Dream tracks with the importance of homeownership to Americans’ perceptions of achieving the dream.

Yet belief in the attainability in the American Dream also reflects other dynamics, including economic optimism or pessimism. When more Americans think the economy is on the right track, they are more likely to think that hard work leads to success.

Patterns of inequality matter, too. As income inequality increases and as social mobility declines, Americans become less confident in their prospects for achieving the American Dream.

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We’re living in a more economically pessimistic time

This may present problems for Trump’s reelection rhetoric. Americans are pessimistic about the economy, and growing more so. Gallup finds that pride in being American has slid to record lows. And inequality has been growing more extreme, where more than half of all income goes to the top 10 percent of Americans. Public confidence in being able to achieve the American Dream is likely lower now than it was when Trump entered office.

While the racial overtones of Trump’s comments about suburban life may do little to win over racial moderates, public pessimism about attaining the American Dream may also limit the power of such rhetoric. To the degree that the American Dream is a shared vision that unifies voters from the right and the left, it can be a strong rhetorical choice for campaign appeals. But with Americans increasingly pessimistic about their ability to achieve a more financially comfortable life than their parents had, such rhetoric may not serve an incumbent president.

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Jennifer Wolak (@j_wolak_) is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado.

David A.M. Peterson (@daveamp) is the Lucken Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University.