The American Dream and the limits of transparency

Alexis Downs (Department of Management, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA)
T. Beth Stetson (Department of Accounting, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Publication date: 28 June 2013



The question of whether the words “American Dream” point to something of substance is at the heart of the authors' inquiry. James Truslow Adams coined the term in his 1933 book The Epic of America as a way to re‐establish a sense of optimism decimated by the Great Depression. Adams' contribution was to move the public discourse from that of individual effort to a sense of a collective identity. The American Dream is an element of the “cultural stuff” whose singularity (“dream”) rapidly breaks down into a variety of interpretations about the American nation (“dreams”). The popular press suggests that the Dream proposes to balance collective membership in a national identity with the individual freedom to achieve prosperity and success. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the Dream and the construction of an American identity by examining the accounts of men who surely represent the American Dream: US Presidential candidates.


In order to analyze the candidates' accounts of themselves as committed to their American identity and to the American Dream, the authors view the tax returns and speeches of Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney through the lens of the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and locate the American Dream as a construct of the imaginary and symbolic orders, as they are defined by Jacques Lacan. The inspirations for the authors' analysis are twofold. One is a 1953 report in which Lacan said, “The unconscious of the subject is the discourse of the other”. The authors argue that the American Dream is the “discourse of the other” and suggest that the American identity is decentered: i.e. a signifying construct (the American Dream) substitutes for identity. The second inspiration is a 2009 paper titled “No one is perfect” by John Roberts, who argues, “The ideal of a transparency pretends to a mere making visible […] [But] transparency works to advertise an ideal against which we will always fail”.


It was found that the candidates' efforts to be transparent advertise an ideal: in this study, the ideal is the ideal of a “perfect‐able” American who lives the American Dream. It is an ideal against which the candidates fail because it is the “discourse of the other”.

Research limitations/implications

This study has limitations. The subjects are two American citizens and the authors' interpretation might not be appropriate to other American citizens and residents.


The authors are aware of no other study that uses Lacanian psychoanalytic views to examine the American Dream.



Downs, A. and Beth Stetson, T. (2013), "The American Dream and the limits of transparency", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 689-702.

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