Ambition Explains America: From Bobos in Paradise to Obama

While the ambition guiding today’s young Americans is not the robust, risk-taking ambition of earlier generations, it is still essential to American life; President Obama’s grandiose goals offer just one example. The second of a two-part series.

Yesterday’s essay surveyed the history of ambition as a guiding principle of American life through the work of figures like Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Ronald Reagan. Today I compare the ambition of years past with the ambition we see in our current generation of young adults, which is less bold and more prudent. Americans are still drawn to great ambition when they see it, as was shown by the public’s support for President Obama when he first campaigned in 2007.

The Backlash and Withering

The prosperity of the 1980s delivered more than Americans were ready for. The service sector of the economy, which had eclipsed manufacturing in the early sixties, was becoming more knowledge-based. Finance, an area of the economy historically viewed with suspicion by Americans, was playing a larger role than ever due to the bull market. Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street uttered what became the punch line for the decade: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Greed, a malignant version of self-interest, is an effect of capitalism run amok. Neither greed nor self-interest was part of George Gilder’s social definition of capitalism that revolved around faith, giving, and commitment. But greed did come to mar the eighties—as perceived in the works of Oliver Stone and David Mamet, in the writings of the liberal intelligentsia that wanted payback for the seventies, and in the aggressive criminal prosecutions on Wall Street. It gradually tarnished ambition by calling into question the morality of success.

After the brief recession of 1990 failed to deliver the soul-cleansing that liberals hoped for, the moral conundrums of ambition itself came into question. At the end of the decade, David Brooks offered a new interpretation of the failings of the ruling meritocratic class in Bobos in Paradise, which exposed the contradiction that class was trying to pull off between the bourgeois value of accomplishment and the bohemian one of decadence.

For the Baby Boomers, the first generation of Americans to go to college en masse, cashing in on their education while keeping some fidelity to the hedonism in which they came of age was a tall order, and they solved it by co-opting from both these ideals. A “common ethos that mingles 1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement,” Brooks called the result.

The back story of Bobos in Paradise is the differences between the old aristocratic ruling class and the meritocracy that replaced it. One similarity it reveals is that the Baby Boomers, like the WASPs before them, are highly ambivalent about ambition. The contradictory experiences of the sixties and eighties, wound so deeply in their history, keep them from embracing it.

Ambition is something to be concealed and tempered. Professing to strive for success disrespects the hard-won aesthetics of the hippie period. In Brooks’s Bobo thesis of the Boomers, they have chosen to solve the aesthetic problem of ambition rather than the moral one. They are still insulated from the masses and the downtrodden, but have found ways to make it appear less so with forays into socially-conscious consumption and third-world tourism. America’s meritocrats have tiptoed around ambition and the problem it presents, a stealth act you would have missed if you hadn’t been paying attention.

Stale Ambition

The inherent dilemma of a meritocratic society and its ambition is the intermediation of education. Schooling has its own rules and pressures that constrain ambition. There are grades to get and instructors to please. Higher education’s larger role in American society has encouraged young people to conform to these demands because it is the gateway to jobs and wealth and status. For the Baby Boomers’ children, the generation born between the late seventies and late eighties, success is more than ever defined by their adult superiors.

This has led to a staler form of ambition. Parents, teachers, and other adult counselors in young people’s lives usually have only a superficial idea of their passion for achievement and are therefore in a faulty position to direct it.

In his follow-up to Bobos in Paradise, Brooks spent a lot of time studying contemporary college students. When it came to ambition he found them highly conventional.

Many of them, especially at the elite universities, are committed to progressing through law school, business school, medical school (sometimes taking all three entrance exams) or the investment banks and consulting firms that recruit in droves on college campuses. Doing this requires a lot of résumé-building for grades, internships, leadership positions, and references. This makes the experience of college students today overscheduled and under-reflective, the opposite of their parents’ university experience. “They are engaged in objectless striving, working furiously at one level, so they can be admitted into the next and more exclusive arena of striving,” Brooks writes in On Paradise Drive.

Why have young people’s ambitions become the ordinary kind Tocqueville wrote about? Why have they accepted the rules of the meritocracy without a fight? One reason is the stability and structure they afford in a volatile economy. Traditional white collar jobs come with good compensation and job protection, as well as educational and career roadmaps to get there. These are appealing things in an economy as fluid as America’s. Idealistic and creative ambitions are risky: Whatever they are in their personal lives, today’s young people are prudent about their professional ones.

What is particularly American about their ambition is not that it matches Tocqueville’s observation, but the optimism and confidence they have in their prospects for success. In America, ambition is less about defined goals than upward trajectory. It has a mystical quality—the sense that there is fulfillment down the line even if it cannot yet be known. Tocqueville may be more right than ever when it comes to assessing the ambitions of the people who are supposed to be ambitious—the young—but this passion does not deviate from the American ideals of progress and optimism. Ambition still matters to America even when it stales.

Obama as the New Archetype of American Ambition

If there is an American who comes closest to bridging the gap between the ordinary and extraordinary ambitions, it is Barack Obama. The president’s life story seems to be an experiment with this objective in mind. On one track Obama played the meritocratic game perfectly—he matriculated to Columbia, took a law degree at Harvard where he edited its venerable law review, then parlayed his legal career into a political one. He settled down in a high-minded middle-class neighborhood—Hyde Park, Chicago—heavy on people like him with advanced degrees and upmarket tastes. He could have stopped there and declared victory.

Yet he obviously didn’t, and this higher form of ambition was apparent as an undercurrent is his professional life. Before going to law school he jumped from New York to Chicago, a city where he had no ties, and worked as a community organizer. After law school he moved back to Chicago for more community activism and a job in civil rights law, rather than corporate practice. His tours through legislative politics in Illinois and then in Washington were about transcending those institutions rather than fitting into them.

Still, it was a surprise to many when he announced his run for presidency in February 2007 at age 45, after just two years in the Senate. Unlike the stalwart candidates for president of the modern era—who waited their turn, identified themselves with a movement, or picked up the torch from someone else—Obama presented himself as the manifestation of a new form of politics, and this attracted voters, including a majority of young people, to his side.

If Obama was principally a communicator during his campaign for president, he has become an administrator since taking the White House. His focus is on legislative battles rather than electoral persuasion. When he is prompted to speak to the country, the language has necessarily had to be more sectarian than expansive because of the redistributive and punitive natures of his policies. The ambitious rhetoric of the first campaign—“It is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend,” he told the nation in Denver—has been curtailed in favor of talk that is instructive and sometimes hectoring.

Just as Obama has fulfilled his career-long personal ambition to be president, he has cut down to size his ambitions about America. His America is a country where wealth must be redistributed rather than created, where economic policymaking is geared toward the next financial crisis instead of expansion, and whose role in the world is no longer defined by its superpower status. As the legislative victories on healthcare, financial reform, and most recently taxes show, Obama may yet cobble together enough support to fulfill this vision by the end of his presidency.

But Obama’s vision is likely to flop like Carter’s, because Americans aren’t willing to be ambitious for themselves but not America. They are rooted to their country in a way Europeans aren’t because buying into America is a necessary condition for their personal ambitions. Being ambitious in America—whether it is about wealth, meritocratic achievement, or ideals—depends in some part on the American Dream, the idea that success flows from capitalizing on the opportunities presented. The importance of opportunity is something that even those who are demure about ambition in America don’t deny. The evidence is impossible to overlook in the stream of people who have always come here in search of it.

Why is ambition the fuel for America? It is because ambition is about forming your own destiny, and that is an American notion. Unlike any other place, people come here to live out their own ideas about what their lives should be like. They leave behind the ties and safety nets of home. “Europeans,” a French socialist politician famously said, “are Americans who refused to take the boat.” Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observation about “the innumerable multitude of [Americans] who seek to get out of their original condition” pointed to ambition’s role as an exceptional American virtue. If America is a place where you write your own life story, ambition explains it better than any other idea can.

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