THE term “American Dream” was coined in 1931, by the author of a book called The Epic of America—ironic timing, since the Great Depression was starting to destroy this dream for so many. But the idea behind the term is one as old as the founding of America itself—this seductive notion that there is equality of opportunity for all in this country, and that those who pull themselves up by the bootstraps can make anything of their lives.
What’s not mentioned is what underpins the Dream—a toxic culture of competition. As I watched the future American president repeating phrases about winning over and over during his election campaign—We’re going to win. We’re going to win so much. We’re going to win at trade, we’re going to win at the border. We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning—I sensed this was something unique, this relentless focus on winning, and uniquely destructive, to the country that was my new home.
The chasms that exist in America—between the races, genders, rich and poor, urban and rural—are broadened by a culture that is obsessed with competition. The great disturbance in American society rests on this fault line between winners and losers—a divide that’s becoming increasingly pronounced.
The World Values Survey, a global research project studying the beliefs of people in different countries, shows that Americans esteem competition like no other industrialized nation on Earth. Americans believe more strongly in the fairness of unequal outcomes. Author and social commentator Fran Lebowitz says there’s an idea running throughout American society: “All people who succeed, succeed on their own, and all people who fail, fail on their own.”
This viewpoint has become a shared fiction on an epic scale. The values anchoring it are as engrained as a verse from the Good Book—a verse anyone can preach, because everyone knows it. But competition, and the importance of winning, create more than just a belief system. These intertwining strands form the double helix of modern America’s DNA.
...Loserdom is rife in a land where everyone is taught to be a winner. But out in the Sonoran Desert, a community is trying to do things differently. Whether by consciously abandoning the American Dream—or by having slipped into a financial situation where the Dream abandoned the American—we are setting out to define success on our own terms.