The politics of the American dream: Locke and Puritan thought revisited in an era of open immigration and identity politics

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


American dream, Puritan, Locke, John, Immigration, Identity politics

Subject Categories

American Politics | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


American dream rhetoric is ubiquitous in contemporary American political culture. But what explains the popularity of the dream? Why do political leaders routinely employ American dream rhetoric in contemporary American political talk? Equally, how does the dream cohere with the philosophies of political leaders across the ideological spectrum? This dissertation analyzes each of these above questions in order to trace the role of the American dream in contemporary American politics.

Part I of the dissertation examines the long tradition of the Protestant work ethic in America and proposes that the contemporary American dream, which insists on hard work and success, is a modern, secularized iteration of an older, Puritan injunction to dedicate one's life to one's calling, and to thereby pursue (heavenly) happiness. The contemporary American dream's continuity with these primordial values of the nation explains, in part, the widespread resonance of the American dream.

Part II examines the purposes of American dream talk in contemporary American politics. Since the 1960s, the U.S. has witnessed both open immigration policies and a surge in identity politics, together with dramatic alterations in its demographics and electorate. In these circumstances, American dream rhetoric offers a politics of inclusion that transcends the extraordinary heterogeneity of the American polity.

In Part III, I offer theoretical analyses of each of what I argue are the dream's constitutive elements - individualism, equal opportunity, and success - and disaggregate the multiple meanings they can each admit of. Here, I point out that these elements' ambiguities and multiple meanings cause the dream trope's elasticity. I then offer examinations of the types of politics each of these elements engenders and demonstrate that each can be invoked and affirmed by political leaders across the ideological spectrum.


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