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Searching for the American Dream in ‘Dream On’

The new PBS doc asks if our country still holds the promise we grew up believing


When 47-year-old political comedian John Fugelsang went looking for the American Dream, it took him quite a long time.

He and his crew from the new PBS special Dream On, which premieres Friday, Oct. 7 at 10 p.m. ET (check your local listings), traveled to 55 cities in 17 states and conducted 200 interviews to ask people what they thought about that proverbial promise of prosperity for hard-working Americans.

I met people who have spent their whole lives working hard and playing by the rules only to have their pensions taken away, seniors who never thought they’d be on food stamps.

— John Fugelsang

Many of us grew up believing in this dream — the idea that the United States is a place where anyone from anywhere with any background can do well economically. Fugelsang wanted to see if the spirit and the possibility could persist in the shadow of a global recession.

Political comedian, John Fugelsang
Political comedian, John Fugelsang

Both in his work as host of the SiriusXM Insight Channel daily political comedy programTell Me Everything and as a touring stand-up comedian, Fugelsang had spent a lot of time talking about the struggling American middle class and how tough working Americans have it. But he’d been doing it at arm’s length, talking about issues from stages and TV studios.

Out of the Studio

“It’s one thing to read numbers on a page,” Fugelsang says. “It’s another to have a crew take you on an adventure into the heart of hardworking America.”

So he teamed up with directed and producer Roger Weisberg, who has been making award-winning documentaries since the 1970s, and set out to retrace the journey taken by French aristocrat, political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. De Tocqueville’s nine-month, 7,000-mile journey inspired his 1835 book Democracy in America, which gave birth to the concept of the American Dream.

What Fugelsang discovered was heartbreaking, but also — he insists — hopeful. “I learned so much that I’m still figuring out what I really learned in some respects,” Fugelsang says. “I met people who have spent their whole lives working hard and playing by the rules only to have their pensions taken away, seniors who never thought they’d be out of food stamps. So many people who honestly believed we would inherit the same American Dream our parents and grandparents grew up with.”

People such as Olivé Hendricks, a welder who was evicted from the home he had planned to eventually hand down to his children. While he was in negotiations to restructure his mortgage, the bank auctioned off his home.

Olivé HendricksCredit: Courtesy of Alan Barker
Olivé Hendricks, who lost his home in 2008, joins protesters outside the Housing Court in Boston.
People such as Kim Dowdy from the Mississippi Delta, who was forced to close the medical clinic she operated, which resulted in more than 3,000 uninsured Americans being left with no way to receive primary medical care.

People such as Fior Vasquez, from Central Falls, R.I. “She is a 32-year-old grandmother who works full-time and is paid minimum wage in a town that just declared bankruptcy in an apartment that had had the electricity turned off for three months,” Fugelsang says. “I realized that I was not going to complain about my canceled TV show [Current TV’s Viewpoint] for the rest of my life.”

Finding Hope Amid Hardship

He also met police and firefighters from that same place who were called in one day and told that the town was declaring bankruptcy.

“They could either take a haircut or a beheading — either have their pensions cut in half or they could risk getting nothing,” Fugelsang says. “These were all men, many of them Vietnam veterans. These men spent their lives running into burning buildings or into crime scenes and not taking Social Security benefits because they had been promised a pension.”

Despite all that, Fugelsang has hope that the American Dream is still alive. And, he says, he learned a lot during the making of Dream On.

“I learned that the only limit to saving the middle class is our own empathy. I learned that there is no greater insult to Americans than thinking that poor people are lazy,” he says. “I learned that I love America, not because of our policies or our patriotism, but because of our people. The same government policies that helped President Eisenhower build the modern middle class in the 1950s could help us today — if we had the will.

“I think there is a lot of optimism in this film. It will open your eyes, but it won’t depress you. It will move you, but it won’t make you despair.”

“Dream On” airs on PBS on Friday, Oct. 7, at 10 p.m. ET. Check your local listings for other times and channels.      

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