Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream, by Sarah Churchwell, Bloomsbury Press, 384 pp, £18, ISBN: 978-1408894804
If our own dreams elude clear interpretation, then collective dreams prove even harder to grasp. This is particularly so of the mutable “American Dream”. The term might conjure a dangerous illusion, obscuring deep-seated inequalities through a myth of individual self-help. To amble through this “American Dream” blissfully unaware could, as Malcolm X famously declared in 1964, be to inhabit a “nightmare”. For others, the dream has served as a unifying reminder of the promises of liberty, opportunity, and democratic governance that have defined an American political community. We are far from living out our ideal, dreamers including literary scholar Sarah Churchwell might claim, but such national promises enable us to imagine and work towards a better version of ourselves.
Despite ‑ or perhaps because of ‑ the term’s incredible elasticity, Americans keep on dreaming. Left-Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally behind the language of a national dream to radicalise the promises of democracy even as they point to economic shifts and patterns of state retrenchment that have prevented some of the hardest-working Americans from enjoying a comfortable standard of living. Right-wing populist President Donald Trump declared the “death of the American Dream” upon his election, only to have his son Eric assure us that it was “alive and well” after two years of his father’s presidency. The Trump presidency improved the national climate for investment and entrepreneurship, Eric claims, while certain Democratic candidates’ social policies threaten an “all-out assault on the American Dream”.
This language has long offered meaning to visionaries across the political spectrum, argues Churchwell through her literary history of the term from around 1900 to 1940. Yet, those dreamers in search of a social democratic or pluralist vision have needed to contend with another way of defining an American political community ‑ one that drew the distinction between “us” and ‘them” not through shared political yearnings but through blood and racial phenotype. Churchwell traces this racial nationalism through the phrase “America First”, which emerged as a commonplace in US political vocabulary some two decades before Charles Lindbergh’s anti- interventionist America First Committee claimed it in 1940.
Through the clash of these two alternative ways of articulating a national community, Churchwell hopes to show parallels between US politics of the interwar period and the present. Parallels run aplenty. But if, as Churchwell has shown, the phrases “American Dream” and “America First” are slippery, mutable concepts that contain microcosms of larger debates around a national future, then we must be aware of how changing political circumstances have reworked these phrases in our present. Behold America! gives a readable history of two irreconcilable concepts of the nation that continue to animate US politics. Even so, the book should not necessarily be read in search of a direct explanation of the election of Donald Trump or the rise of right-wing racial nationalist populism at this historical juncture ‑ though it offers examples of how popular language can shape the kinds of “dreams” that Americans find politically possible and worth fighting for.
Churchwell’s analysis highlights the historical contingency of an “American Dream” of individual material success, the dominant vision in the growth-oriented economy of the post-WWII US. To reconstruct an earlier version, she relies in part on John Trumwell Adams, often credited with the invention of the “American Dream” through his 1931 An American Epic. Adams claimed that some Americans’ excessive accumulation of wealth had endangered the functioning of a “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable”. This vision of opportunity was, for him, at the heart of the American democratic promise. His idealised conception of a national community, however, revealed his imperialist bent and his blindness to structural inequalities. He celebrated the “rugged individualism” of American frontiersmen, colouring their mass displacement of native peoples as “wresting life from a wilderness”. Further, he seems to forget the existence of Americans of colour or their claims to political rights and social belonging. While Churchwell notes that he “shared the blind spots of his time”, she takes from Adams the notion that each generation must redefine its political commitments and then fight for them anew. Despite Adams’s erasures, she claims that at the heart of his text was the argument that “the democratic experiment would fail if equality and justice were not protected”.
Churchwell credits Adams’s work with popularising the use of the American Dream as a critique of individual acquisitiveness, yet she claims that this idea emerged at least a decade before. Sinclair Lewis’s 1921 novel Babbitt lampooned the veneration of “business” as a national faith during the conservative 1920s, implying that the democratic experiment was doomed without some level of economic equality. Popular literature from F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to the works of John Steinbeck dealt with the frustrated inability of Americans of all economic standings to realise their “dream”, even though none of these authors explicitly mentioned it by name. For Churchwell, the Great Depression allowed the critique implicit in these texts to rise to the surface of popular consciousness in the form of a potentially social democratic and racially inclusive articulation of an American Dream.
Yet the “dream” also acted as a conservative force. President of the California Institute of Technology (and, Churchwell neglects to mention, avowed eugenicist) Robert A Milliken brandished the idea of an “American Dream” against the so-called “Stateism” of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Milliken, safely ensconced in San Marino (which he called “the westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization”), was primarily disappointed that his efforts on the National Recovery Administration’s Scientific Advisory Board did not yield more research funding for the physical sciences. However, he was far from the only conservative to claim that the growth of the welfare state under New Deal social programmes endangered an “American Dream” of individual liberty and opportunity. Conflict between individual and collective meanings of the dream is central to Churchwell’s story, and it appears again through the partisan uses of the American Dream in the present.
While debates about the proper mix of liberty, opportunity, equality, and justice continued, most of Churchwell’s proponents of the American Dream argued that the democratic experiment relied upon some form of racial and cultural pluralism. On the other hand, those who insisted that they placed “America First” claimed that opening US borders to races “incapable” of self-government subjected American democracy to peril.
In a November 1915 speech, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that America should be first to design a post-World War I peace that could export the US principles of self-determination, liberty and democracy onto a politically reorganised Europe. Yet by 1916 and into the post-WWI years, Churchwell shows, “America First” came to have a strikingly anti-internationalist meaning. Its usage conjured a vision of America that was racially “pure”, free of undesirable immigrants, and united by common faith in the liberty and opportunity afforded by a free market.
A diverse cast of characters march through her America First story. While Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund makes cameo appearances, she uses the “100% American” Ku Klux Klan to highlight a transnational fascist moment during which far right, anti-labour, anti-immigrant ideas travelled across the Atlantic. The Klan identified themselves as “American fascists” since Mussolini’s 1922 rise in Italy gave them the language to do so. For its part, Kuhn’s German-American Bund tried its best to locate fascism deep within the American political imaginary: President George Washington’s warning against “foreign entanglements” earned this revered founding father the ahistorical title of “America’s First Fascist”.
This is not to say that all racial nationalists resided on what journalist Dorothy Thompson called the “lunatic fringes”. Even Progressive proponents of a “melting pot” could have racialist attitudes. President Wilson, for example, emblemised an era-specific Progressivism through his creation of a Federal Reserve and a Federal Trade Commission along with lower protective tariffs offset by a new graduated income tax. His promise of self-determination, historian Erez Manela shows, inspired anti-colonial nationalist movements around the globe. Yet Churchwell notes that he segregated White House facilities and authorised screenings of the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation in the halls of national government. The line between the “American Dream” and “America First” was not always clear. Both major political parties contained racist elements.
Churchwell shows that language does not just describe political reality. It also shapes it. Without the likes of “scientific racists” like Madison Grant to define the capacities of various racial groups for democratic self-governance, how could the US both define itself as a “melting pot” and cut immigration by nearly 85 per cent through Immigration Acts passed from 1917 to 1924? In order for this logic to work, groups denied access at the border must be defined as biologically incapable of “melting” into a national whole. Phrases like “America First” and the racial nationalism it expressed allowed Americans to paper over gaps in their ideology, making it possible not to think about the larger implications of these contradictions.
Yet, containing the debate within these two specific phrases limits the political impact of Churchwell’s story. If language, especially the printed word, helps to build a “nation” or a “people” then the voices considered ‑ and thus the sources we cite in trying to reconstruct that language ‑ are crucial political choices. Churchwell primarily draws from newspapers and the writings of prominent American authors or public intellectuals, which cannot fully demonstrate the way that key terms get charged with meaning from the bottom up as well as from the top down. For example, these sources obscure left-liberal social movements that demanded an expanded version of the American Dream in the interwar US, including robust labour movements that found a voice through the federal right to collective bargaining granted in 1935.
They also do not allow the reader to see the political vocabularies of people of colour, unless they ‑ like WEB Du Bois ‑ happened to have been prominent public intellectuals themselves. Though we encounter Martin Luther King Jr in the epilogue, the social movements of the 1960s were not the first to demand social citizenship for people of colour. In Churchwell’s own period, a growing population of Asian-Americans seized upon the right to vote afforded by the 14th Amendment to work for both more substantive social rights and the repeal of anti-Asian immigration restrictions. Black anti-fascists drew parallels between Jim Crow segregation at home and the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini abroad, claiming that a truly democratic America was bound to grant social citizenship to people of colour. While she seeks to recover one particular lexicon, alternative ways of articulating national belonging also existed. To build the kind of cultural pluralism that Churchwell promotes, it is crucial to understand the political vocabularies not just of white multiculturalists but also of Americans of colour. Through what language have they articulated experiences of or desires for citizenship and national belonging?
Sometimes, Churchwell’s practices of citation obscure the political orientation of the speaker. This is not only true of major papers like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which are cited as though ideologically and politically neutral, but also of individuals. One critic of Wilson’s “America First” speech in 1915, identified in the text only as the head the “Friends of Peace and Justice” turns out to be John Brisben Walker, a confessed anti-Ally propagandist. Walker was irate that Wilson’s speech claimed neutrality even as the president was aiding the allies and mobilising for war. If Walker had lived to see WWII and had maintained his anti-interventionist views, might he have claimed the same “America First” language that he criticised Wilson for using dishonestly? We cannot know ‑ Walker died in 1931 ‑ but we can take heed of the fluid, slippery content of these keywords.
Before the Cold War fused democratic governance together with liberal capitalism, Churchwell shows, the American Dream might offer greater ideological flexibility. Yet ending story at the Second World War presents a challenge for readers interested in connecting the dots between interwar politics and those of today. America’s postwar growth economy relied on bolstering purchasing power to promote full employment. One result of this post-war Keynesian turn, as historians like Lizabeth Cohen have shown, was to make consuming material goods both a marker and a practice of American citizenship ‑ entwining the private marketplace with the public “American Dream” (and celebrating mass consumption to an extent beyond that which was environmentally sustainable). Relatively powerful trade unions, along with public policies that granted social securities to World War II veterans, fostered the growth of a middle class and ushered in a period of decreasing wealth inequality that some historians have called the “great compression”. Meanwhile, Cold War anti-communism shaped politics in this period, silencing political visions deemed incompatible with a conjoined economic and political liberalism.
Yet this postwar American Dream has long been out of step with economic and political realities. After the nation’s growth engine sputtered in the 1970s, middle and working class Americans were faced with a combination of inflation, economic stagnation, industrial decline, soaring energy prices and a growing trade imbalance ‑ all of which combined to erode mass purchasing power by mid-decade. The fracture of a New Deal political coalition that had given Democrats shape through the mid-twentieth century and the Republicans’ turn rightwards appear interrelated political circumstances. Resulting austerity politics could lay bare racial tensions, as Americans sought out fleeting pieces of the economic pie. Some historical literature on the 1970s has suggested that the decade saw not just a rise of conservatism but also what historian Kim Phillips-Fein has called a “remaking” of liberalism, a hollowing out of its former social democratic promises. Many constituents found themselves “pushed out” of a Democratic party that had lost socio-economic coherence, leaving them with a vote, but not a voice ‑ they could not find their needs represented through available major policy alternatives.
The US is now faced with a rise of racial nationalism that constructs the American “people” as plagued by “illegal” immigrant workers, black “welfare queens” riding high on taxpayers’ dollars, and Democratic policymakers proposing an “un-American” expansion of social services. Yet many who oppose President Trump and the far-right racial nationalism he embodies have voiced alternatives that could reinvigorate democratic politics—perhaps the “American Dream” may be ripe for redefinition. Such alternatives come from trade union movements (made up of about two-thirds of people of colour), women of diverse racial and class statuses calling attention to the systemic nature of sexual abuse through #MeToo and environmental groups that demand attention be given to the climate crisis and frame access to natural resources like clean water as core social rights. As Churchwell suggests, emotional attachment to phrases like the “American Dream” ‑ and the associative chains they create ‑ may be foundational in forming and redefining a political community. Yet, if we can take one lesson from Behold America, it is that such terms contain multitudes. What the book’s top-down sources cannot clearly show is that such a protean, abstract concept is most powerfully given weight and meaning through the difficult work of movement-building.