It's Called the American Dream Because You Have To Be Asleep to Believe It

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Alissa Quart . Photo courtesy of Alissa Quart

Much of what is now a core part of the American psyche is a series of get-rich-quick schemes passed off as meritocratic necessities within a capitalist society. Key words and phrases like “the American Dream,” “hustle and grind,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” all serve to fuel the legitimacy of the image of the self-made rugged individual American. In her new book, with its title borrowing from these infamous phrases, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, author, journalist and poet Alissa Quart attempts to dispel the mythology that has affected Americans for almost a century. The Horatio Alger story, which maintains the ability of the individual making it alone, was always a sham, but now in the age of billionaire capitalism, it is a cruel hoax of unattainable opportunities.

Quart joins host Robert Scheer in this week’s Scheer Intelligence to share some of the inspirations she had for this book. Both Quart and Scheer, despite being born in different eras, can relate to the capitalist phenomena that plagued the US during their lives. Despite the days of the Great Depression and New Deal advocating for exactly the opposite of the individual against the world, the prevailing wisdom has maintained this for decades. “The original dream that James Truslow Adams came up with… in 1931 was much more open-ended and collective and meritocratic, and it understood that people needed a helping hand and that they needed others in the construction of themselves and in creating a common wheel. And somehow over time, it became this distorted, make it on your own, 9 to 5 is for weaklings, grind set, as it is today. You’ve got to do everything on your own. You have to get the house, you have to get the cars and the good job and excel,” Quart said.

Quart does more by diving into the psychological implications of such philosophies dictating the way people view others struggling or prospering. She references Stanley Milgram’s experiments and how they reminded her why “Republican and Republican-leaning voters thought that people who were economically struggling, [had] done something wrong or they weren't working hard, and also vice versa. They thought somebody like Trump was excellent, genetically superior, like a worthy politician, because they assumed that if somebody seems successful, powerful, wealthy, they must have done something right.”

These asterisks in the stories of successful people, such as tax exemptions or coming from wealth, are often ignored and feed the illusion of hard work and sacrifice fueling economic success in the U.S., Quart points out.



Joshua Scheer