Can we still trust the American Dream?
To reveal the power of narrative and story, we often use the example of the American Dream.
It’s relentlessly harnessed to swing elections back and forth; Trump’s Make America Great Again (liberal elites standing in the way of the American Dream) and Biden’s Build Back Better (broken systems standing in the way of the American Dream).
It attracts people from around the world to chase unicorns in Silicon Valley – during 10 years of visiting the Bay Area with aspiring clean growth startups, I’ve seen and admired the transformative power of the mythical narrative on the ambition of UK CEOs – and it inspires others to make movies about wolves in Wall Street. It unites people in races to the moon and to net zero. And in a shared belief in the right to bear arms for life, liberty and property.
These stories perpetually imbue the American Dream with meaning and legitimacy, while shaping our social, economic, political and environmental systems.
The point I usually make about the pervasiveness of these stories is that if we looked at the data instead, we’d quickly realise that if we wanted to pursue the American Dream, we should actually all move to Copenhagen. Cue laughter and a conversation about irrational decision-making based on the stories we tell ourselves versus logic and facts.
But what about the darker sides of a narrative so deeply ingrained and powerful that its values and behaviours underpin the accepted truths of all modern western capitalist societies?
From the white male English philosophers in the 17th century whose nation-building notions of the ‘rational man’ shaped the early concepts of democracies and, with it, institutionalised racism. To our unequal, billionaire-worshipping consumerist societies today that, whether it’s oil or microplastics, continue to extract what we can’t afford to take from nature and cause our own extinction. This ‘truth’ of how things are and should be, that the American Dream encapsulates, has failed us.
It’s a lot to face up to. And in a narrowing window for change, we have no option but to work with what we’ve got, but with far more urgent, equitable and radical ideas and action.
The American Dream doesn’t need to become a deadly tragedy. A Dream Reborn has the potential to be about a shared planet of opportunity, establishing truths about trust, solidarity, resilience, agency, imagination, innovation, cooperation and equity that our response to our species’ biggest challenges requires. There are hints of what it could be, but we need many more new stories and storytellers to shape our collective imagination of the future. We need a special blend of ancient myths and pervasive narratives repurposed, with new voices, new stories and new truths.
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