I've been thinking a lot lately about the American Dream, especially since I've heard more than a few people on both sides of the aisle suggest that it's in danger this coming election. I know that once upon a time it meant that anyone, regardless of circumstance or background, could apply themselves, work hard, and become a success. As I got older, I began to understand how much external factors - such as time and luck - really played a significant role, but the underlying idea was still the same.
Work hard. Become a success.
Somehow, as a lot of ideas do, the American Dream became less about the becoming and more about the destination. It was no longer about being a person of character who achieves a goal, it was about achieving the goal, period. Myopia set in; ends became more than means, and soon enough, people were cheating the system to get their desired outcome.
Now, it could be argued, the American Dream is to be without want.
It's what drives lottery sales. It's what compels many new entrepreneurs. It's what most average working people shoot for with regards to retirement.
And it can kill our country if we don't change.
Here's what tickles me, though: we have system cheaters on both sides. It's funny that what one person would call a shrewd capitalist, another would call a money-hungry, greedy CEO. And what some people would call a low-down, lazy welfare cheat, others would call a shrewd capitalist.
After all, if the point of the game is to be without want, isn't abusing the welfare system the quickest way to win?
If the point of the game is to be without want, doesn't it make sense to cut corners, push back against regulation, cook the books and still collect massive bonus payouts?
Thinking about it, I've come to the conclusion that the American Dream was never intended for everyone. It wasn't a one-size fits all proposition in the way that many of us assumed. While the whole country can benefit from someone attaining that dream, it's not an inalienable right for all of us to possess it ourselves. And if we're honest, we'll admit it.
Heck, if we're being honest, we understand that the American Dream isn't for the selfish; it's not for the stunted in character nor the narrow of vision. The American Dream is a shared ideal, a community longing, and thus those who partake in it understand the value of that shared hope: how, when a person pursues his or her dream, it involves and inspires others to do the same.
Yet somehow, the selfish have taken the dream for themselves. They've robbed the community of our nation by making it purely individual, making it entirely about themselves. That's why robber barons have no moral qualms about lavish bonuses, or welfare freeloaders about waving their iPhones around at the grocery store; the system exists to serve them, to better them, to cater to their needs.
After all, if they're smart enough to know how to work the system, don't they deserve to reap the spoils?
Like a lot of things this election season, the two sides have more in common than we realize. It's merely ideological blindness, or inattentiveness to reality that keeps us from seeing that what is being presented as two distinct political directions are actually two sides to the same coin. As my friend Jeff told me recently, you can change the mask, but if you don't change the philosophical core, you've made no progress.
So pick a mask. It doesn't matter. On either side you have people taking an ideal and turning it into a destructive path.
Which means at our core, we're in trouble.