The American Dream Is Not Dead

(But Populism Could Kill It)

Michael R. Strain

Populists on both sides of the political aisle routinely announce that the American Dream is dead. According to them, the game has been rigged by elites, workers can’t get ahead, wages have been stagnant for decades, and the middle class is dying. 

Michael R. Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, disputes this rhetoric as both wrong and dangerous. In this succinctly argued volume, he shows that, on measures of economic opportunity and quality of life, there has never been a better time to be alive in America. He backs his argument with overwhelming—and underreported—data to show how the facts favor realistic optimism.

He warns, however, that the false prophets of populism pose a serious danger to our current and future prosperity. Their policies would leave workers worse off. And their erroneous claim that the American Dream is dead could discourage people from taking advantage of real opportunities to better their lives. If enough people start to believe the Dream is dead, they could, in effect, kill it. To prevent this self-fulfilling prophecy, Strain’s book is urgent reading for anyone feeling the pull of the populists. 

E. J. Dionne and Henry Olsen provide spirited responses to Strain’s argument.

“Michael Strain offers a trenchant look at the material standard of living of U.S. households. If his message were summarized on a hat, it would read ‘Make America Grateful Again.’”

N. Gregory Mankiw, Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics, Harvard University

“Michael Strain’s important book is a welcome antidote to the pervasive pessimism surrounding economic policy debates.  I don’t agree on everything but feel better after reading it about our economy and more importantly about how policy can make it better.”

Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor, Harvard University and former Secretary of the Treasury

"Without glossing over the real challenges that too many Americans face, Michael Strain makes a persuasive case that the American dream remains alive and well. And, he provides important policy recommendations that policymakers would do well to heed in order to strengthen the American dream."

Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House of Representatives

“In this important book, Mike Strain persuasively bolsters his title claim that 'the American Dream is not dead.' While the nation faces disruptive challenges from economic changes from trade and technology, those very changes help propel our prosperity. What could kill the American dream, as Strain notes, is a populist call for protection. Every serious student of the current economic and political situation should read this book.”

Glenn Hubbard, dean emeritus and Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics, Columbia Business School, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers

“Before you declare the American Dream is dead, you should take the time to read Michael Strain’s case to the contrary. Strain provides a thoughtful and balanced assessment of the evidence on the state of American workers and families, in the process rejecting some of the claims coming from both the left and the right.”

Jason Furman, professor of the practice of economic policy, Harvard Kennedy School and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers

“Michael Strain is one of the keenest economists at work on the center-right today. In this brief but important book, he dares to bring facts to the overheated and often poorly informed debate over the state of the American Dream. Engaging and convincing, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand our economic present—and future.”

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review

“In this lively contribution to our national debate, Michael Strain presents the evidence for how Americans are really doing. Strain shows we're faring better than you'd think from doom-sayers of left and right. He also argues that misunderstanding our real situation could lead to foolish and damaging policies that would make things worse, not better. An important short book.”

William Kristol, director, Defending Democracy Together

“This vital book suggests we reconsider the doom and gloom economic narrative, in favor of acknowledging that ongoing economic progress continues to deliver rising material prosperity each year, increasing opportunity, and greater freedom from want. The argument matters, because the strongest foundation for a 'small c' conservative perspective is that a system that delivers such progress is worth conserving. Strain's intellectual depth, policy breadth, and relentless honesty mark him as one of the leading conservative intellectuals of our time. I'm no conservative, partly because I might see the case for change more clearly than Strain. But Strain asks hard questions, presents uncomfortable data, and makes counterarguments more clearly than any other right-of-center wonk. Whatever side of politics you're on, this smart little book will make you a better wonk, with a clearer sense about the facts that underpin the biggest policy debates of our time.”

Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy, University of Michigan

"Just how good or bad are things in America right now? Michael Strain's The American Dream is Not Dead is the most balanced and informative take on this question you are likely to see."

Tyler Cowen, professor of economics, George Mason University and coauthor of the Marginal Revolution blog

“The American Dream is alive and well—not based on wishful thinking, but on an abundance of evidence. Michael Strain’s balanced and expert presentation, acknowledging problems but identifying the strengths in America’s economy, is exactly what the policy debate has needed: a data-driven look at good news that has been ignored by politicians of left and right alike.”

Charles Murray, F. A. Hayek Chair, American Enterprise Institute

“While I’m not convinced that the American Dream is entirely healthy, I’m more optimistic about its prospects after reading this book. I’m regularly on the other side of an argument from Michael Strain, yet I crave reading what he writes, because in it I’ll find more compelling reasoning than I’ll typically otherwise encounter. Michael’s willingness to engage constructively and convincingly makes him an important voice in any meaningful discussion about the American Dream.”

Ali Velshi, host, “Velshi” on MSNBC

“Michael Strain's The American Dream Is Not Dead should be read widely by people who think—or fear—otherwise. In clear and simple style, this accessible, no-nonsense treatise lays out the basic facts about the track record of the American economy, and how the economy has delivered for ordinary Americans by such yardsticks as wage growth, middle class job creation, family income, and economic mobility. By these and other criteria, he argues, performance in recent decades has been tolerably good—certainly much better than many of us have been told."

Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute

"We have a bad news bias. Frequently, however, that creates an inaccurate picture of the world. In The American Dream is Not Dead, Michael Strain shows that while there are very real challenges ahead of us as a country, Americans are living in the best, most prosperous time in our nation’s history. This book shows that hope and truth go together."

Arthur C. Brooks, professor of practice, Harvard Kennedy School & Arthur C. Patterson Faculty Fellow, Harvard Business School