Americans can pursue whatever dreams we want to because we live in a country where all people can pursue their fantasies equally. This belief gives birth to our ambitions and gives us hope that anything is possible if we work hard enough for it. This is not surprising because the American Dream is a fundamental aspect of the American experience that we have been taught our entire lives. But is it a realistic doctrine to adhere to? As The 19th century French nobleman and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his groundbreaking book Democracy in America, “The same equality that permits each citizen to conceive vast hopes renders all citizens individually weak.” (Tocqueville, 513) The ambition that is caused by equality in America is the catalyst for Americans to be dissatisfied materially, spiritually and during periods of well-being.
Materialism is a driving force behind America. It provides men with concrete illustrations of what prizes they can win if their life goes as planned. Materialism forces men to examine their own self-interest. The self interest of a person in a democratic regime, for example, inspires a love of freedom and a concern for the community. However, materialism can also impart onto Americans a sense of dissatisfaction with what we already have. Most Americans have no grand ambitions and only wish to live in comfort. However the method by which he comes to that comfort may be a point of contention between him and his satisfaction with his life. Tocqueville doesn’t believe that the average American desires a mansion. Instead, the noble believes that we only want a nice little house with two bedrooms and a bath.
It is not a question of building vast palaces…it is about adding a few toises to one’s fields, planting an orchard, enlarging a residence, making life easier and more comfortable at each instant, preventing inconvenience and satisfying the least needs without effort and almost without cost. (Tocqueville, 509)
It is improper for one to speak of all Americans in a general way, as if we all thought and acted the same, because one can never know what is inside a man’s heart. Therefore, we must look to fiction to find an example with which we can compare the assertions made by Tocqueville to what we see in post-modern America. The 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is centered on a character named George Bailey who suffered from a severe case of discontentment when his life did not go as planned. George must handle his father’s post mortal affairs instead of fulfilling his boyhood dream to explore the world. After that, he must surrender his dream to build “skyscrapers and a bridge a mile long” (Capra, Scene 9) when he must take on the responsibilities of operating the family business instead of going to college. A profession is a materialistic item that one can possess and that may define him. A man must be wary of not letting such a thing consume him and become his obsession because that can generate dissatisfaction in his soul. By not becoming a world traveler or an engineer, George finds himself being brought down by the weight of wishing he had a better career, a better house, and a better life. George’s dissatisfaction began as a young man, when he had to wait to go to college and work in his father’s building and loan business in the intervening years. (Capra, Scene 6)
The promise of adventure and a future where he could leave the sleepy town of Bedford Falls to do great things animated George’s spirit and imagination. George’s passion grew while waiting for his life to start. He spent his leisure time reading about the places he hoped to see and structures he hoped to plan. Tocqueville recognizes this longing for the things of this world among Americans specifically and acknowledges it on page 506. “What attaches the human heart most keenly is not the peaceful possession of a precious object, but the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess it and the incessant fear of losing it.” Another character in the film who finds himself plagued by this “imperfectly satisfied desire to possess” is Mr. Potter. Potter, the film’s antagonist, seeks to own everything in the town of Bedford Falls and has largely succeeded. One of the only businesses in town that Potter hasn’t yet acquired is the Bailey Building and Loan.Potter, though he has everything else, will not be satisfied until he has control over everything. (Capra, Scene 4) Mr. Potter exhibits the materialism of a rich man living in a democracy as illustrated by Tocqueville on page 509. Rich people in America do not aim very high. In fact they “aim at the satisfaction of their least needs rather than at extraordinary enjoyments”.(Tocqueville, 509) Is there any true difference between a member of the middle class and a rich man in the United States? No. The only thing that separates them is perception. A middle class person with an iPhone possesses the same technology as a rich man with an iPhone, yet that same person of the middle class will “cast a glance of hope and longing on the enjoyments of the rich” and have his imagination “seized in advance by the goods that fate was obstinately refusing him”. (Tocqueville, 507) A warped love of comfort and material goods forces him to wish that he had more, even though he already has quite a lot to begin with. Materialism seeps into nearly every pore of an American’s envy. Envy is caused by the conspicuous equality between all people in the United States and, like George’s envy of his friends for already going to college, is the seed of discontent.
This material discontent can have its affects spiritually as well. George Bailey, for example, though “not a praying man”, (Capra, Scene 21) raises his eyes toward Heaven when all seems lost. George is not the only person pleading his case to the divine. In the opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, we see a depiction of something that happens rather regularly in our society; people praying on behalf of someone who they love. These moments of petition are described by Tocqueville on page 510; “there are moments of respite when their souls seem all at once to break the material bonds that restrain them and to escape impetuously toward Heaven”. The members of a society that is rooted in a Christian faith will, no matter how frequently they obsess over what the world can provide them, have moments where they turn their attention exclusively towards the skies and pray. This should not surprise us. Tocqueville says that “These sublime instincts are not born of a caprice of his will: they have their immovable foundation in his nature; they exist despite his efforts.” (510) Man undoubtedly has certain instincts that guide him through his life and the recognition of the Divine is one of the oldest. Faith is no different than every other intuition, in that, it will be influenced by a equal society. This influence includes dissatisfaction. Consider George Bailey, a man who has lived a good life and who has sacrificed all of his ambitions for the good of others, the idea of going to jail because of a missing eight thousand dollars is unbearable to him. George is at a loss and then turns to the only being who can help. Many people have the wrong concept of how God answers prayers. Many have slipped into believing in a type of mysticism that depicts God as a genie that will grant your wish. This is a result of their materialistic world view that prevents them from understanding the abstract. These people fall into despair and turn their backs on religion when their prayers are not granted. Such was the case for George Bailey. Shortly after finishing his prayer, George is punched in the mouth by a man whose he wife he had earlier offended. The situation seems hopeless for George, whose fifteen thousand dollar life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. He decides to end his life by jumping off of a bridge. A man like George Bailey will sometimes take matters into his own hands if he does not have material proof that God will intercede.
But while man takes pleasure in his honest and legitimate search for well-being, it is to be feared that he will finally lose the use of him most sublime faculties, and that by wishing to improve everything around him, he will finally degrade himself. (Tocqueville, 519)
The citizens of a democracy are uniquely situated to become dissatisfied with religion because of the influence that materialism has on them. Materialism makes them believe that everything of worth exists in this world and that the next world is none of their concern. Dissatisfaction with religion comes from a lack of a method to empirically measure the effects that God has on the world. Faith is uncertain and an imperfect fit for an impatient society.
George Bailey is what Tocqueville would call a restive spirit. As a young boy, George explains at length how one day he is going to see the world. As a young man, he dreams of earning glory as an engineer. The Bailey’s are an American middle class family which is what allows George to have these grand dreams that would not begin to imagine if he were living under the boot of a European serfdom.
When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune are destroyed, when all professions are open to all, and when one can reach the summit of each of them by oneself, an immense and easy course seems to open before the ambitions of men, and they willingly fancy that they have been called to great destinies. (Tocqueville, 513)
Although the business is doing fine and he has a beautiful family and a nice house, even though it is old and drafty, (Capra, Scene 19) George still feels as if there is something missing from his life. The dreams that he never fulfilled haunt him with the potential that he was never able to realize. This happens to many people in many places in America every day. This also happens, according to Tocqueville, to those who have achieved everything that they have set out to do. Comfort, it would seem, is coveted as much as material goods are. Not having comfort or “not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it” (Tocqueville, 511) is abhorrent to Americans. We, according to Tocqueville, not only want to gain happiness, but we want to gain happiness in the quickest way possible. Americans are skittish and flighty in the face of the uncertain. We regret our journey to satisfaction if there appears to be another path that would have been easier or more fun. We seek the easier route because that route will take the least amount of material goods from us, including time and energy, while giving the greatest amount to us in the process. We seek the fun route because we envy those who we perceive to love their lives and wish to emulate them. We can see that their lives appear to be amazing and we want that too. When Clarence reveals that he is George Bailey’s guardian angel, George remarks that Clarence has no wings and “looks about like the sort of angel I’d get.” (Capra, Scene 23)Even in the face of a miracle, an American is dissatisfied with the quality of angel he received. Americans have such high ideals and grand beliefs that we often do not appreciate the good things that we do have because we are continuously searching for either the next thing that will make us whole or the path to the dreams we left behind.
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures. The principle reason for this is that…(they) dream constantly of the goods they do not have. (Tocqueville, 511)
That is why one finds, in democracies, retired athletes becoming coaches when the opportunity to reclaim a former or desired glory presents itself. The resurgence of ambition is too much for the materialistic soul that is desperately seeking to be satisfied. American dissatisfaction is born through a combination of materialism, envy, and uncertainty that everything that we’ve ever worked for or dreamed of will never come to be. In short, Americans are dissatisfied, even in times of prosperity because we are afraid of reality never living up to the fantasies that we believed so ardently could become truth.
Equal opportunity provides the American people with a unique sense of optimism for our future. This optimism fuels our passions and ignites our initiatives to work harder and be smarter to get what we want. As Tocqueville said, “It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.” (511) The American Dream is attainable and very often won. The problem is that we sometimes, like George Bailey, fail to realize what a wonderful life we have because we are blinded by the influences of materialism, envy, fear, and a restless culture brought on by our equality. Equality compels us to seek more and better things and is the true root of dissatisfaction in America.