New York Times columnist David Leonhardt discussed the past and future of the American Dream in a Wednesday lecture based on his 2023 book, Ours Was the Shining Future. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), the talk explored the reasons behind America’s prosperity in the 20th century and the decline of the American Dream today.
The event was held in Oden Auditorium with a full room of students and professors in attendance. CSAD Student Associate Celia Ford ’25 introduced Leonhardt as the writer of the “The Morning” newsletter and former Washington bureau chief at the Times, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs.
Leonhardt began his lecture by telling the story of A. Philip Randolph, an African American civil rights activist who organized the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters and convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue a 1941 executive order integrating wartime factories. Despite the odds against him, Randolph successfully harnessed the power of grassroots organizing — something Leonhardt described as essential to the process of making major changes to the American political system.
Despite the many problems facing America in the mid-20th century, most citizens at the time were able to make the American Dream a reality, according to Leonhardt. He listed three reasons: political power, which had helped enable Randolph’s successes; culture and investment.
Today, however, the salaries of top executives are rising at a faster rate than the American economy is growing, life expectancy has declined and Americans are more likely to spend time in prison than they were before 1980. These changes coincide with a decrease in union membership and federal spending on research and development relative to the rest of the economy.
“We’ve made a series of choices in the last few decades that has caused inequality to rise, not fall,” Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt pointed to two reasons for these trends: the laissez-faire style of capitalism that has dominated since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the Democratic Party’s shift away from the priorities of working-class Americans.
“[The Democratic Party] continues to alienate many of those people, and the Republican Party clings to an economic model that is deeply, deeply flawed,” Leonhardt said.
Nevertheless, he expressed optimism for the future, pointing to recent successes of community movements on both sides of the political aisle, including the right to same-sex marriage and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“I think we have failed [to change our economy] because we haven’t adequately tried,” Leonhardt said. “I genuinely don’t know whether we will try, but I also genuinely believe that this country still has the power through our political system to fix so much of what ails us.”
The next event in CSAD’s spring lecture series, “Democracy Under Fire,” will take place on Feb. 19 in Oden Auditorium.