Wuthnow: Myths distort true picture of the American dream

From the May 8, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

The image of the “land of opportunity,” built on the hard work of enterprising immigrants, is a cornerstone of American history as taught in classrooms and as handed down from generation to generation. Yet throughout its history, American society has been divided by questions of equal opportunity, from slavery to the women’s rights and civil rights movements to the recent debates about immigration laws.

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow takes a probing look at whether the country is living up to its most vaunted ideals in his new book, “American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts To Be a Better Nation Fall Short,” published in April by Princeton University Press. Wuthnow investigates how traditional narratives about the American experience — and their visions of moral responsibility, individualism, religion and diversity — compare to reality. As part of the research for the book, he led a team in interviewing some 200 first- and second-generation immigrants to learn more about their efforts to realize the American dream and about their views on American society.

Wuthnow is the Gerhard Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion. His research focuses on the social and cultural aspects of grassroots religious beliefs and practices. Wuthnow recently discussed the issues examined in his new book.

What is the American mythos?

Writing this book was really my response to 9/11, because when suddenly the world’s perception of us as a nation seems to be different than our own perception, it raises a lot of questions. That led me to think about what is American democracy and what happens to democracies over time. This is where the American mythos comes in.

We have longstanding stories that tell us we’re a good society and that we aspire to certain ideals, but we often don’t think very deeply about those stories. For instance, we have many stories about what it means to be a good citizen or for that matter simply a good, strong person. Those stories get picked up in sound bites, in commercials or in schoolbooks, and they give stability to society. But as social circumstances change, they also limit our ability to respond to those changes.

We have become a society that is more diverse, more egalitarian and in many ways more tolerant and accepting of differences. All of that is good and gives us some reasonable basis for pride in what America stands for, and yet we never seem to quite realize our ideals or even come very close to living up to our ambitions. A lot of people would argue that we’ve failed to realize our ambitions because there are people who drag their feet — bigots or racists, let’s say — or we simply have policies that don’t work or incompetent public officials. My argument, while not denying that those other things are important, is that cultural inertia is also a big part of the problem.

Cultural inertia restricts our imagination when it comes to immigration, encouraging many people to focus on exceptional stories about success while neglecting the harder realities of immigrant life. Our failure to examine taken-for-granted narratives also leads us to believe, for instance, that ethnic and religious diversity are hallmarks of America, but we neglect to see how shallow our understanding of pluralism often is. The growing gap between rich and poor is another reality glossed over by the mythic perception of America as a land of opportunity.

In what ways have efforts to improve society fallen short? Do you believe American society has gotten worse in some way?

I have to admit that this is a slightly pessimistic book, or at least it was a sobering book for me. I’m not arguing that things have gotten worse on the whole than they were, let’s say, in the 1930s or 1950s. I do believe that things have gotten better in many ways, especially as we have absorbed a large number of immigrants and become a more diverse and egalitarian society in terms of gender and sexual orientation and religious expression. But we have a long way to go on those very fronts.

To take one example, we have long resorted to “rags-to-riches” ideas to make sense of success in America. These certainly were very common in the early 20th century and in the late 19th century as we tried to understand how immigrants came to America and succeeded in that era — the Horatio Alger stories were the most common examples. To my surprise, as I began interviewing successful immigrants, I found that these rags-to-riches stories were being repeated with almost the same message and in some cases in the same format as the early ones that were told.

These stories tell us that individuals succeed largely by dint of hard work and their own individual efforts. That’s part of the story, and it’s compelling. But when I probed more deeply into the experiences of successful immigrants, it turned out that almost all of them were college-educated, with many of them having received college educations even before they came to the United States. Many of them were from backgrounds that were hardly underprivileged. They often had special gifts at language or opportunities to learn multiple languages and to travel. When they arrived in the United States they had a great deal of help, often from extended family members who had already arrived, or from employers, teachers or religious organizations. So there was a social dimension to their success that was at least equally important as their hard work and personal efforts.

By neglecting that social dimension, we then fail to understand why a lot of other people who come to America don’t have the same advantages and are not as successful. We either don’t understand or we blame the victim and say, “You weren’t successful because you didn’t work as hard as someone else.”

So what makes for a good society and a good democracy, and in what ways do we still need to strive to reach these ideals?

I talk about two ideas in the book: strong individuals and a reflective democracy.

By strong individuals, I mean individuals who understand themselves to be socially embedded. They are not people who imagine themselves to be utterly self-sufficient. They understand that they have certain advantages and certain resources from their community or social networks that they can draw on, and they understand in turn that they owe certain responsibilities to their communities. That, I think, gives us a pretty good way of thinking about what a good citizen is, because a good citizen finds a balance between taking responsibility for oneself but also taking responsibility to be part of a community.

A good society, then, clearly is one that is composed of good citizens but it also one that encourages reflective democracy. What I mean by that is something a little bit different than deliberative democracy, which is a more commonly used term that generally means there are forums in which people sit and talk about their values and differences. That’s certainly important. Reflective democracy goes one step further — it says whether a person is in a group or alone, that person has a responsibility to think critically about the values on which the society is based. An example would be that some of the best editorial writers in our major newspapers do a very good job of encouraging us to reflect more deeply on our values. They go beyond the headlines and sound bites on television news and ask us to think about if we are really succeeding as well as we claim to be in how we deal with immigrants, for instance, or how we deal with questions of income inequality.

We do have a number of venues for reflective democracy — it’s not a matter of having to invent something from scratch and at great cost. College classrooms are potentially great venues for reflective democracy, as are newspapers and community forums.

Do you think our leaders do a good job of promoting reflective democracy?

Our leaders generally do not encourage or practice reflective democracy. The problem is that we have gotten into the cycle of perpetual election campaigning. One election is no sooner over than the campaigning for the next election begins, so the rhetoric is usually quite controlled and quite limited.

We should not look mainly to political candidates or elected officials to help us in this process. I think reflective democracy needs to happen in town halls and church basements and synagogues and mosques and at Boy Scout meetings and, certainly, in college classrooms.

A considerable focus of your work is on religion — what do you think of the current role of religion in society? You talk in the book about how the country’s pluralism has led to greater “spiritual privatism” — what do you mean by that?

Religion in America currently has one side that a lot of people are very proud of and another side that a lot of people either don’t notice or are very ambivalent about.

The first side is religious pluralism and our acceptance of religious diversity. Many analysts of American religion argue that’s a very positive aspect of American religion — not simply because diversity itself is a good thing, but the argument is that diversity then makes religion stronger and, in turn, makes democracy stronger. This argument is often framed in terms of market economics — a diverse religious market is like a diverse economic market in that the economic market is good for business, encourages competition and we all benefit. The diverse religious market is good for the soul because each religious group has to work harder to attract adherents and is more vibrant as a result. So religion in the United States flourishes more than it does in Western Europe, where there isn’t as much competition. And as religion flourishes, democracy is better because religion encourages people to do volunteer work, to vote and to do what’s in the best interest of their community.

The side that’s left out is that religion becomes privatized. I don’t mean that people don’t talk about religion. But the way that we talk about religion is that it is a matter almost entirely about personal opinion. Religion is no longer a matter of conviction or truth or even ideas about what might be universally right or wrong — it’s simply how I feel and what sort of experiences I as an individual person have had. When that kind of privatization happens, religion loses a lot of its ability to inform the moral character of democracy.

If we think about Martin Luther King Jr., he was able to express his values as convictions and to link those with arguments about racial equality. If he had said, “Hey folks, this is my personal opinion — you do whatever you want,” the civil rights movement would never have gotten off the ground. So that’s the weakness.

You mentioned earlier that this was your post 9/11 book. What effect has that event had on making this a better nation or raising the issue of how to become a better nation?

I think it’s too early to know very clearly what the effect of 9/11 has been. My initial response in the weeks and months following 9/11 was that everything has changed. I especially felt that because at the time I was working on a book about religious diversity [“America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”] for which I had talked to a lot of Muslims, and I was thinking very much about how relations with the Muslim world were changing.

Since that initial sense, the questions on my mind more have been: What has changed and what should change? Probably the most lasting impact for me has been to raise my awareness as a sociologist of how we make sense culturally of disasters that have happened or might happen. In that sense, 9/11 has led me to go back and look at a lot of the literature that emerged immediately after the explosion of the first atomic bomb and how Americans were coming to terms with living in an age of potential nuclear holocaust, and then also to look at current discussions of possible impending catastrophes such as global warming or avian flu or other outbreaks of disease.

I think we have been affected by those events more than many observers have realized. The standard argument is that the easiest response is denial, and that may be true. But I also think that our understandings of moral responsibility are being shaped by these possible catastrophes. Our moral arguments are increasingly framed in terms of being vigilant and not trusting the government, but that we need to somehow do something ourselves. There also is a connection with moral arguments about doing our part somehow to keep society from unraveling.