In this month’s Vanity Fair, David Kamp charts how our centuries-long obsession with the American Dream may be dying. To take stock of where the American Dream stands today, let’s turn to one of its most unmediated representations, the game show.
Kamp argues that the heady ambitions inherent to the concept of the American dream were quite possibly the key to its undoing.
While classic shows like The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune offer name-brand appliances, family vacations, and bundles of cash like chapters in the “rags to riches” version of the American narrative, today even the modest intellectual and analytical skills needed to excel at these shows are no longer necessary.
In newer, modern diversions like Deal or No Deal, all the participant needs is the ability to take risks. While a disembodied voice dares players to quit while they’re ahead, a populist audience prods them to keep going, keep gambling, because at the end of the day it’s better to have gambled and lost it all then to settle for anything less that extreme largess. The Dream has fallen into the realm of high stakes gambling with an irresistibly low buy-in.
Our latest version of the Dream falters by raising expectations of success to soaring hubristic heights, deifying fame and fortune as the ultimate prize. During the consumer credit boom of the post-war era, the idea that each succeeding generation would exceed the prosperity of the last morphed into something exponentially more ambitious and unattainable.
Should we continue revisiting the Dream so that, as Kamp argues, “the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable middle-class way of life…remains happily constant from one generation to the next”? Middle-class dreams, after all, are pretty rarefied aspirations for the majority of the globe. For now, it seems, yes. There are few other alternatives on which to pin our hopes in economic times like these. But whether faith in an old dream will be sufficient remains to be seen.