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Why have we given up quest for American dream?

WASHINGTON -- What has happened to the great American dream where, through your own enterprise and hard work, you end up with the big house and the big car and all the other trappings of economic success?

If you believe one of the nation's hottest political pollsters, John Zogby, one of every four voters has given up on finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They have moved from the material dream into the spiritual one, feeding the soul, one presumes.Zogby and some of his fellow demographers are in the business of measuring the trends that impact our national elections, and their findings and opinions probably will set the course for the 2000 presidential race. If their conclusions hold, then Social Security and Medicare become secondary to concerns over crime and violence, for instance.

But much of what they are finding now seems not only contradictory but overturns much of the conventional wisdom of how voters respond when times are good.

Why, when the United States is enjoying the best economic climate in generations, with the computer and its golden child, the Internet, creating millionaires by the carload, would even 25 percent of the voters have lost faith in the American dream, material or otherwise?

Not since the industrial revolution have Americans had such an opportunity to go from rags to riches, riding along to unparalleled wealth on the initiatives of a handful of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and his partners in Microsoft. Zogby claims the "negative response to the American dream" of a big house and a new car and no financial troubles is most exhibited by working women, minorities, and voters in the 18-to-20-year-old age group.

Minorities, particularly blacks, always have felt left out and now have pretty much abandoned hopes of realizing the "dream," the theory goes. But what about the growing black middle class? And while many working women still are bumping up against glass ceilings, hundreds of thousands are moving onward and upward into better jobs. And certainly it has been my experience that those 18- to 20-year-olds care about little except self-gratification.

There are other major contradictions here.

Zogby says that there is little or no mandate on moral causes, but at the same time he lists crime, violence, drugs and gun control as the top issues today and likely in 2000, with morality and family breakdown next and then education and schools. The Littleton tragedy, he says, promises to be the dominant cultural and umbrella issue of the presidential campaign, adding that it remains to be seen which candidate can best address this.

On his list of current voter concerns, Social Security surprisingly ranks at the very bottom, as do poverty, homelessness and hunger. It is difficult to believe that Social Security and Medicare could be relegated to such a low standing.

And if voters are less angry, as Zogby contends, some of this probably stems from the booming, inflation-free economy. Americans are working and prospering in greater numbers than ever.

Zogby likes to compare the current laconic attitude with 1958. But that was a major recession year and voters had strong reasons to believe the good times were gone and with them the American dream. The same reasons don't exist today. Perhaps a reason for this sudden diminishing of concern over that dream is that so many Americans already have it within their grasp.

Dan Thomasson writes this column twice weekly for Scripps Howard News Service.