Playing into the Myths: The American Dream and the Reality

dThroughout history, myths have been used to organize reality in an understandable form. From the days of first settlement, Americans have milked the five core myths of success, the frontier, agrarianism, city on a hill, and the foreign devil. Though perhaps not conceptually particular to Americans, these myths have evolved throughout time to become unique and vital aspects to the national character. Today’s social issues continue to play into the myths, thereby cementing America’s mutual obsession with “progress” and the past. While the success myth remains a mere illusion of hope for those of lower socioeconomic status, the frontier and city on a hill myths couple the perception of American superiority; on the other hand, the agrarian and foreign devil myths eye preservation rather than prospect with their core centralized upon defending the established national identity.

Although the myths are not embodied solely within American culture, their singularity to Americanism originated alongside the founding of the nation. The Puritans, specifically, established the core of the success myth by means of their Protestant work ethic. As one Puritan maxim exclaimed to his fellow settlers, “God send you into this world as a workhouse not a playhouse” (Taylor 162). Success, therefore, laid roots in the fundamentals of hard work to heed the path God set out. Individualism propagated, endorsing a paradigm shift to the self: If you work hard and you are successful, you are blessed. If you are not successful, the fault falls upon yourself (Wilson). The importance of the self endured throughout changes in American social thought. Especially in lieu of industrialization, when success became increasingly determined by wealth, the individual’s pressed importance with the themes of the “self-made man” and “rags-to-riches” which were idealized in figures as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Carnegie (Rosenbloum and Wilson 13). In current society, success continues to be thought of in terms of social mobility and financial achievement. College students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for instance, often lean towards more vocational majors in fear of under-employment post-graduation (Morgan). While the idea of the “self-made man” still consumes American thought and propagates itself through social leaders like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or even Donald Trump, recent research suggests that in fact “forty-two percent of children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom” (Isaacs). Thus despite the promise of upward mobility, actual movement across socioeconomic classes remains immensely difficult.

Similar to the success myth, city on a hill dates back to the Puritans’ first settlement in America. Colonial governor John Winthrop embodied the ideals of America as a “beacon” to the world in his speech 386 years ago when he stated, “the eyes of all people are upon us” ( However, the city on a hill myth did not shift dramatically from its original conception. Even past societal struggles, such as the Great Depression, the American people still envision themselves as an exemplary people to the rest of the world. Theodore Roosevelt draws upon these ideas throughout his Presidency by further sculpting the beliefs that America must charter the course for other nations on behalf of all humanity (Rosenbloum and Wilson 156). But perhaps none other than Ronald Reagan personify the continuation of this theme so adequately. In his farewell speech, Reagan discusses the “recovery of our moral” and the regeneration of respect from the other influential, industrialized nations. He quotes a fellow member at the referenced economic summit, “Tell us about the American miracle” (Reagan). As such, while the myth originated with the Puritans searching for a place to freely practice Protestantism and serve as loyal servants to God as an exemplar to the world, the transition into Reagan’s era brought forth a new vision in which America itself became essentially a godly, miracle-working entity itself.

Today’s American culture patterns itself through concatenation of the frontier and city on a hill myths. From its foundation with American settlers increasingly pushing west and conquering new lands to its scientific manifestation during the Cold War, the frontier myth obsesses with the hope of opportunity and of reinventing oneself. As miners, farmers, and later cattlemen escaped the civilized east to settle new lands, they fostered the individualist belief that they could become something more. During challenging times in American history, political leaders such as Roosevelt often stepped in and used the frontier myth to restore hope to the American people” (Rosenbloum and Wilson 144). The myth’s promise in the future, alongside the “beacon to the world” theory, reinvents itself in today’s technological era. Social media platforms like Facebook have consumed not only the attention of Americans but have also delivered a means by which international communities can virally experience Americanism. The ability to transcend distance barriers has enabled the sharing of culture, especially American culture, that plays into the global “salad bowl” (Schwab). Other American successes in forms of medical technology, for instance, continue to exceed world expectations across the world. Fast-sequencing DNA machines that can simplify identification of affected cells are now a real time possibility with liquid biopsy, a technology other nations globally will begin to adopt (Standaert). Our new frontier, therefore, manifests itself not through the conquering of land but through the enhancement of tech-facilitated communication that fundamentally leads to faster innovation and quicker results.

The Thomas Jefferson-pioneered agrarian myth, on the other hand, birthed the vision of the farmer as a simple tiller of the soil, extracting Earth’s virtue by working its soils. Essentially moral at its core, Jefferson’s farmer eventually evolved into an agribusiness concept set forth by Populist leader William Jennings Bryan. The farmer, thence, undertook the role of a capitalist and abandoned his role as the “simple tiller” (Wilson). Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign draws upon these concepts that ultimately find utopia in the past. His slogan, “Make America Great Again”, embarks upon a quest for purity and the American innocence that once grew out of these lands. He leans heavily towards the values of self-sufficiency that ultimately constitute the agrarian myth. Ironically, Americans often view the agrarian villages as a breeding venue of individualism and autonomy despite the heavy subsidization of these lands.

Because the agrarian myth emphasizes the role of family and, as an extension, a close-knit community, it has become a myth of morality. Trump taps into this desire to preserve the tight community throughout his campaign by continually painting himself as the father of an affectionate family. He further pushes the idea of a community nationwide by also adopting the foreign devil myth. By posing various outsider groups like illegal immigrants as a threat to the American public, he creates an illusion of a united, intimate American neighborhood that attempts to preserve the past by keeping out foreigners. We define who we are by who we are not (Wilson). Of course, this concept seems a bit nonsensical since the U.S. is essentially a nation of immigrants. Still, since its origins, with the Native Americans befalling victims as the first alien group to the new European settles, the foreign devil myth has kept Americans as a whole united by antipathy to a common enemy. Moving past King George, Catholics, and communism, we as a nation have arguably come to the most dangerous of the foreign devils—terrorism. Interestingly, although both Trump and Hillary Clinton have suggested ways to combat terrorist organization ISIS, former senior fellow at the New America Foundation and Penn State Professor Flynt Leverett suggests that “Middle East policy is likely to become more interventionist and confrontational than it has been in Obama’s second term” (Leverett). While America has succeeded in battling its foreign devils of the past, none other has been so threatening to American security, and while both presidential candidates propose plans to defeat this radical groups and others like it, will their actions be enough? According to Leverett, neither candidate has a viable solution.

From the time of America’s first European settlers to today’s incoming immigrants, the five myths have embodied themselves into the American lifestyle and culture. Though the fundamentals of these myths have remained constant since their origination, time has altered our interpretations of them as we apply the myths in current context. What were once seen as male, anglo-saxon mythologies have now evolved into adaptable means by which to measure individual and national Americanism. Thirty years from now will we still hold ourselves to the particularities of these ideas? Not exactly, but in one form or another, probably.



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