Is The American Dream Really Dying?

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who’s running for the Republican presidential nomination, issued a stark warning recently.

“Today, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans believe that our kids will have a worse life than we do,” Cruz told conservatives in South Carolina. “That has never been true in the history of America until this instant, right now, maybe the most un-American idea you can imagine.”

Cruz is right that Americans are in a pessimistic mood. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last year found that only 21 percent said they were confident that life would be better for their children’s generation; 76 percent said the opposite.

But Cruz is wrong on another important point: There’s nothing new about this brand of pessimism. Pollsters have been hearing those sour sentiments from Americans for more than 30 years, ever since they started asking the question.

In 1986, for example, 63 percent said in a CBS-New York Times poll that they believed the next generation was unlikely to have a bright future, and that was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when it was morning in America.

“From 1984 until now, a plurality on almost every survey, and sometimes a majority, has said the next generation would have it worse than this generation,” Samuel L. Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told me a few years ago.

It turns out that as Americans, we don’t just share the American dream; we share a tradition of worrying that the dream is slipping away. Voters aren’t pessimistic because Barack Obama has been president for six years; they were already pessimistic before Obama entered law school.

And Cruz isn’t the first politician to discover this continent, far from it. Walter F. Mondale sounded some of the same themes when he ran against Reagan in 1984. So did Michael S. Dukakis when he ran against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Bill Clinton did too, in 1992. And so did Mitt Romney, when he ran against Obama in 2012.

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