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3/11/14 at 04:06 PM 3 Comments

The American Dream and the European Nightmare

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Photo: Flickr/David Smith - Creative Commons
Statue of Liberty

By David Murray

Looks like President Obama and the Democratic Party have decided that the best way to win, or at least minimize the damage, in the upcoming elections is to incite anger and resentment against those who allegedly “earn too much money.”

If they succeed, the great American experiment will have failed, and the Europeanization of America will have triumphed.

A large part of the “American dream” has been based upon three ideas:

  1. Success is the result of hard work.
  2. Success for one person brings good times to many more.
  3. If he succeeds, then I can too.

The European mindset has been much more suspicious of individual success, often attributing it to luck, “who you know,” family wealth, or even the government. Europeans view success with much more of a “zero-sum” mindset (i.e. more for one person means less for me). In The Downside of Inciting Envy, Arthur Brooks wrote:

The 2006 World Values Survey, for example, found that Americans are only a third as likely as British or French people to feel strongly that “hard work doesn’t generally bring success; it’s more a matter of luck and connections.” This faith that success flows from effort has built America’s reputation as a remarkably unenvious society.

Happy Americans
It’s also why Americans are happier than Europeans. The media likes to attribute American cheerfulness to superficiality and artificiality, but it’s much more deeply rooted in the three optimistic strands of the American dream outlined above. Consider the corrosive effects of the European nightmare:

Unsurprisingly, psychologists have found that envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick.

A 2008 Gallup poll found that the least envious people were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed. And that was true across the board, regardless of income, education, religion, and politics.

Rare Contentment
But that happy contentment is becoming a rarer commodity. The General Social Survey found that the number of people who believe that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. Early this year 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”

But we can’t just blame the Democrats for this. Research has found a direct correlation between a sense of declining opportunity and increased envy. As Arthur Brooks says:

Just 30 percent of people who believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed describe income inequality as “a serious problem.” But among people who feel that “only some” Americans have a shot at success, fully 70 percent say inequality is a major concern.

According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied. In just a few years, we have gone from seeing our economy as a real meritocracy to viewing it as something closer to a coin flip.

Republican Insensitivity
The Republican Party just doesn’t seem to get this change. Perhaps most Republican politicians are just so used to all the breaks and opportunities that come with their status and wealth that they and their children have never felt disenfranchised or disadvantaged in their entire lives. That’s the impression they give. It still seems like the same great land of opportunity to them. But for many others, the system feels increasingly rigged against them.

Republicans desperately need to find leaders who will feel and articulate this, who will fight to restore a sense of a level playing field, who will give people confidence that we’re all playing the same game, and that the final score has not been fixed beforehand. It needs leaders who can give people hope that through hard work they can make the team, score the clutch, and win the game. It needs leaders who will unite everyone on the same team, a team that doesn’t envy and penalize it’s star players, but really wants everyone to win.

But it also needs leaders who can persuade (not coerce) the star players to pass the ball more often, to show more care and concern for the injured and less-talented, to coach and mentor the discouraged, and to generously invest in expanding the team.

The Root of Envy
Above all, we need the Christian faith that alone can extract both the love of money and the root of envy, and help us all to learn “in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil. 4:11). If that seems impossible to you, read a couple of verses down: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13).

Given the link between envy and sadness, joy and contentment, it’s no surprise that these verses appear in what is often called the Epistle of Joy.


David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.

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