How the American Dream Became the Kenyan Dream

By Kathurima Mwongera

Hostility towards the United States has been increasing on the global stage. A narrative is emerging on how China and Russia are pushing for a new world order where they are the leaders on geopolitical matters as opposed to the United States. There is a sustained effort to topple the dollar as the world’s preferred reserve currency. The devaluation of the dollar would dilute the influence of the US in the world’s emerging economies in Africa and Asia. In the midst of all these efforts to demote the US from the position of the world’s big brother who leads the way, we should not forget how America has helped build the world, and Kenya by extension, into what it is currently.

The American Dream as a Philosophy

Although the term ‘American Dream’ was popularized by James Truslow Adams in the 1930s, the philosophy itself can be traced back to the foundation of America as a nation. During America’s Declaration of Independence, the thirteen initial states of America declared that “all men are created equal with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This was back in 1776 when the thirteen colonies were pushing to become free from the rule of the British. Later in 1789 when the Constitution of the United States was ratified, liberty and prosperity were attached to this ideology.

America’s global influence

American expansion can be traced back to the immigrant settlers who came to the country seeking a better life. To the settlers, this expansionism, Manifest Destiny, was their way to spread enlightenment and development across North America. In the process of pursuing their conviction, however, they caused a lot of controversies including the Mexican-American War and the Indian Removal Act which was a government policy of evicting Native Americans from their ancestral land to give room to the settlers. Despite the trouble that this expansionist mindset caused others, they managed to spread their virtues and highly esteemed institutions whose impact is still felt today. Although opinion would certainly be varied depending on who is analyzing the expansionism mission, the American settlers were able to spread democracy, free people’s mindset from being slaves and servants of the European colonizers, and establish social philosophies such as egalitarianism.

The immediate way in which Kenya felt the effect of the Manifest Destiny expansionism philosophy by America was through increased demand for slaves. Our fore-parents were taken as slaves but today, they are Americans, living the American Dream. Notably, Kenya takes pride in the links it has to the former American president, Barack Obama, whose descent has links to slavery. Manifest Destiny also led to Kenya and Africa being colonized. Inspired and challenged by the success that Manifest Destiny brought for America, European major powers such as Britain and France also saw Africa as a continent full of culturally inferior people that needed to be colonized and civilized.

After its founding and a long period of isolationism following the American Civil War and Emancipation,  the American Dream developed not only continental but global momentum. American values such as democracy, freedom, liberty, equality, and prosperity to people spread to other nations. Since the American Dream had become a way of life for Americans, it was entrenched in every aspect of American society, ranging from politics, education, spirituality, business, economics, and administration. Therefore, each of these sectors lived the American Dream and adapted it to their operations and whenever they expanded outside America, they sought to spread American values. Among the American agencies that helped in spreading the American Dream across the world were American missionaries, philanthropists, educationists, businesses, and in a big way, Hollywood films.

Hollywood Influences

Over and above the physical movement of Americans and their Multinational Companies to Kenya and elsewhere in the world, Hollywood films have helped America spread its values through soft power. In a significant way, these films have spread America’s popular culture to Kenya and they largely portray America as the land of free people. This has made Kenyans fond of American culture and it is common for Kenyans to desire to move to America which they have come to describe as ‘the land of opportunities’. Hollywood films such as Wall Street, The Pursuit of Happiness, and The Wolf of Wall Street inspire Kenyans to pursue financial success. Hollywood has become so influential that other countries started naming their film industries after it even when clearly, there are no such places named so in those countries. Whereas Hollywood is an actual place in America; other entertainment designations such as India’s Bollywood and Nigeria’s Nollywood are not real places but just portmanteaus. Kenya is also developing Machawood, named after Kenya’s county of Machakos.

Liberal Developmentalism

Historian Emily Rosenberg coined a term for the overseas version of the American Dream. She called it ‘liberal-developmentalism’. According to her, this overseas version of the American Dream had five components. First, its proponents had a strong conviction that other nations had to replicate America’s developmental achievements. Second, the pushers of this ideology had faith in private enterprises being free. Third, they wanted open and free access to trade and investments. Fourth, they wanted a free flow of information and culture. Fifth, they wanted global acceptance of the US government and its activities in the promotion and regulation of the participation of Americans in international economic and cultural exchange. This elaborate approach to internationalizing the American Dream saw Americans spread their values and influence across the world.

Two biggest ways in which Kenya felt this overseas version of the American Dream were political and economic. Politically, the US was instrumental in pushing for a return to multiparty democracy in Kenya during the era of the late President Moi. The US Embassy in Kenya is a key player in informing policy changes and particularly on human rights and electoral processes. Although Kenya is a sovereign state, it is always under pressure from the United States on matters of policy reforms. Lately, and since the visit by the then US President Barack Obama to Kenya in 2015, there has been increased pressure from the US for Kenya to recognize LGBTQ persons. Economically, the US continues to support Kenya financially and encourages American companies to invest in Kenya. Among the notable and culturally influential American companies in Kenya include Coca-Cola, KFC, IBM, Mastercard, and Microsoft.

Pax Americana and the American Dream

Central to the ability of the United States to spread her American Dream to almost every nation on earth, is Pax Americana. Since the American Civil War, there has been no major war fought in the United States. Up until the First World War, the US largely focused on its own internal affairs and maintained neutrality in global conflicts and especially the conflicts in Europe that triggered World War I. Notably, however, and in a very significant way, the US was central in shaping the global rules-based order after the Second World War. The United States invested heavily in the rebuilding of European economies through the Marshall Plan. It was also instrumental in the rebuilding of Japan. America’s involvement in these economies created a relationship with these nations where America yielded significant power over them and this status continues to date. America was also at the center of the formation of global multilateral institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, NATO, and the United Nations and its agencies.

National philosophies out of the American Dream

Bilaterally, the American Dream has directly or indirectly influenced the cultural, political, and economic transformations of the world’s major economies. In Europe, for example, nations such as Britain, Germany, and Italy each had their own version of national dreams modeled after the American Dream. Although the Soviet Union strongly opposed Western ideologies and more specifically American influence, post-soviet Russia opened its doors to American enterprises and products. China only started to advance socio-economically after it opened itself up to Western influence and by extension the American way of doing things. Chinese leaders started molding the Chinese Dream out of the American Dream. Although Kenya has never officially announced a Kenyan Dream, it operates in a manner that tries to emulate the economic, political, and cultural success of the West, particularly America. A notable national policy for development is Kenya’s Vision 2030 which is a national policy document promoted during the era of the late President Mwai Kibaki. In this vision, Kenya aims to be an industrializing and middle-income country that offers an enhanced quality life to all its citizens.

Has the dream died?

In a 2022 poll by YouGov, it is the older generation that still believes in the American Dream at 53% of the population. Of young adults under the age of 30, only 29% of them believe in the American Dream. The new generation is becoming more critical of the tenets upon which the American Dream was founded and built. There is a common belief that it was pushed by selfish elite individuals to increase their wealth at the expense of the commoners and the least privileged. One does not need to look further to see the immorality behind the Dream, especially with the brutal displacement of Native Americans and America’s willingness to go to war to expand its territory. With increasing suffering and wealth inequality in modern America, more and more people from newer generations have developed the feeling that the American Dream was not meant for them and hence do not have a foundation to believe in it. Down the line, Kenyans also started losing faith in the American Dream and turned their backs on the West and America for the emerging East, primarily China.

As America fades, China rises

Despite the role America played over the last century in enlightening the world and sharing its national ethos, the same world has started to become hostile towards America, forgetting that they all have an American aspect in their national development. Possibly the United States should now ditch the dominant approach when dealing with other nations and adopt a more collaborative and friendly perspective that exists between buddies founded upon mutual respect for each other. This could win America back its old allies who no longer wish to be treated as inferior to the United States while allowing America to still possess soft power over them. If this does not happen and China and Russia manage to yield significant global power, especially over Africa, nothing much will change in Africa apart from having a new master. It has been demonstrated clearly that China too does not treat its allies as equals but wishes to exert some power over them, especially through debts. 

Kenya has already fallen into this Chinese debt trap through the many projects that the Chinese have offered to finance. An infamous example is Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway line connecting the capital city, Nairobi, with the coastal city of Mombasa. The project’s cost was outrageous and despite being run by the Chinese to this date, it still runs on losses. China’s influence in Kenya is currently felt even in the remotest parts of the country where the Chinese have been awarded contracts even for simple projects that local Kenyans could have delivered. Not to mention Chinese restaurants and the Confucius Institute which I was also part of while in college before deciding I did not like Chinese morals. As I write this, there is a lot of Chinese soft power around me. The two phones on my desk, the pair of scissors, and the power extension cable are all Chinese-made. When America loses its grip on global power and influence, we will only have new masters. More of a shift of the power axis because at the end of the day, even in groups of buddies, someone has to lead.