How to Prevent the Destruction of the American Dream

Most of what I have read about the political issues that endanger the American Dream implies that one specific group–which could be the Left, the Right, the rich, the lobbyists, or some other group–or a specific ideological position or belief system–such as too much capitalism, too much intersectionality, too much atheism, too much moral decay, etc.–is to blame for our problems. However, it seems fairly difficult to believe that the American Dream, as I would define it, could be “unilaterally destroyed” by one side or one such aspect.

When thinking about this, I typically experience quite a bit of sadness, because almost 20 years ago I desired for the U.S. to become my “home of choice”, where I wanted to live going forward. And as a German citizen I had the good fortune that–despite the fact that I lacked some of the required credentials for skill-based immigration visa sponsorship–the U.S. offers a lottery for Green Cards. Tellingly enough, the organization that helped me file the paperwork calls itself “The American Dream.” And after about 10 years of submitting my name to be one of the lucky about 55,000 people around the world to be given a “Diversity Visa” Green Card each year, I indeed did get lucky. And just last month I became a naturalized U.S. Citizen, something I am immensely grateful for!

First, I would now like to briefly describe my own understanding of the American Dream. Next, I would like to point out where I see a collective mismatch between what I perceive is happening in the US at the moment (on all fronts, so to speak). And last, I want to make what in “Nonviolent Communication”–an approach to communicate in the language of life–is called a request, of each and every of my readers.

So, what is the American Dream for me? Well, in a nutshell it is the promise that the culture we share is one in which the individual’s rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not curtailed in any way more than is absolutely necessary. Importantly, this right or privilege is something bestowed to individuals, which recognizes that each and every American may make autonomous choices that, to the best of the individual’s ability, align with their beliefs for how to best pursue happiness. So the essence for me is that, founded in the U.S. Constitution, with the absence of concrete, prescriptive ways of how to pursue happiness, we already acknowledge that the exact nature by which individuals choose to achieve happiness differs between people.

The mismatch I now see, which is the source of my sadness, is that people “on all sides”–a phrase I am choosing deliberately, because, while President Trump’s use of it might have been unfortunate, it does capture the essence fairly well–have come to believe that their way of pursuing happiness is the right (and possibly the only viable) way. Let me give you a few examples:

People supporting and fighting for gun ownership seem to be desperate for expressing their needs for (self-) protection and safety (being able to own and use guns in situations that, in their mind, warrant gun use) as well as for autonomy (being able to prevent the government from becoming an all-controlling force). People strongly opposing and fighting against (massive) gun ownership probably have the same (strong) needs: protection and safety (by seeing guns as the source of violence, they wish to abolish them) as well as autonomy (by considering that, without the possibility of being faced with a gun, it will be much harder to coerce them into doing anything against their will).

People supporting and fighting for abortion seem to be saying to me they want women to have the option to express their need for autonomy (that is that their body is not merely a reproductive factory for another life, but remains firmly theirs to make choices about) and for future security (that by making the hard choice of terminating a pregnancy, these women will not be forced with economical hardship that will make life for the mother as well as the child very difficult). And people who want to abolish abortion as a practice in their minds morally bordering on murder have very strong needs of protecting life and of providing a form of autonomy for the prospective, future person that could evolve.

People supporting universal healthcare clearly indicate that for them being in reasonably good health is a more or less absolute requirement for the pursuit of happiness, and that without the provision of truly accessible healthcare, life will always be stressful and cannot be fulfilling. And people arguing against it seem to say that by taking away too much of the personal responsibility–that is requiring people to, in essence, pay for their health related choices in a way that becomes individually meaningful, by taking up monetary resources if bad choices are made–people not only lose autonomy individually but also, in giving up this personal responsibility, will collectively incur costs causes by others, another form of giving up autonomy over their income or resources–if health insurance premiums or taxes increase to cover everybody else’s healthcare related cost, clearly individuals who do take responsibility for their health personally are “punished” for other people’s poor choices, who instead should be “punished” for their own choices.

I chose this last example specifically because, in my mind at least, it demonstrates two crucial aspects that I believe are the cause for the erosion of the American Dream: the now shared belief that there is a singular way in which happiness is to be pursued–a form of morally justified imperative that needs to be prescribed over others’ wishes, even though people do not share what that way is–and the belief that bad choices deserve punishment, and not only punishment in the form of an individual experiencing the direct consequences of the choice, but often also a punishment imposed by those who know what’s right.

It is, from a far enough distance maybe, amazing that this is happening in the US of all places. Given that, in my mind at least, the founders clearly intended to enshrine every individual’s choice for over how to pursue happiness (as much as possible without interfering with others’ pursuit of the same), it now seems we have ended up in a place where (self-) righteousness takes hold “on all sides”, where people everywhere make prescriptive statements of “how to live”–and, if you don’t, you need punishment of sorts otherwise.

So what is my request (that does at the same time not prescribe anything specifically)? My request is for each and every one of us to consider the following two questions when dealing with people we disagree with on any issue: what needs is this person trying to meet? And why is this person choosing this particular way of trying to meet them?

If you give yourself a few moments to contemplate this request (that is to consider thinking about those two questions in times of conflict), and going forward you are indeed considering it, then this will, most important of all, require a stance of curiosity–why is it that I am experiencing a conflict? what is at the root of the other person’s behavior?–a stance of empathy–what might the other person be feeling and thinking? is it not worth finding that out?–and a suspension of moral superiority–is it possible that my way of attempting to fulfill my needs may, inadvertently, make it seem difficult if not impossible for someone else to fulfill their needs? is there a way of getting everybody’s needs met, including the needs the other person is expressing, no matter how poorly?

I firmly believe that if we allow ourselves the necessary temporary distance from our own moral beliefs–which are certainly for each individual founded on the desire to increase the well-being for everyone–then we can take steps towards a state of the nation that, once again, deserves to be call the Home for the American Dream: the idea that individuals have the capacity to choose what is best for them, and that by allowing them to make that choice, a truly important aspect of humanity–our collectively shared need for autonomy–is realized in a way that no other country on this planet emphasizes just as much.