What do the words “American Dream” call to mind? A home with a car in the driveway (perhaps another in the garage), a couple of kids and a golden retriever? A job you like, that pays well, and employs your talents? Or is something less tangible like freedom, equality, and opportunity?

For a lot of Americans, the American Dream means not just doing well, but doing better than the previous generation and looking forward as the next generation flying even higher. It’s a combination of respect for the past, hard work today, and hope for the future.

Presently, many Americans are not feeling too optimistic. Fifty-nine percent of American parents in a recent Pew Economic Project Poll replied that it would be “somewhat” or “much harder” for their children to achieve the American dream. It’s not surprising. The unemployment rate has been above 8% for 43 straight months—the longest period of continuous high unemployment since the Great Depression. If you count those who are underemployed or who have stopped looking for work, the rate is closer to 15%. Incomes have fallen. People have lost employer-provided insurance. Gas prices are high and grocery costs are climbing.

During the Obama Administration, the nation’s debt has risen to an unprecedented $16 trillion. That’s debt that the next generation will have to pay. Worse, the stimulus plans, expensive bailouts, corporate subsidies, and bloated government programs have failed to improve the economy. Some candidates are talking about adding more programs, debt, and higher taxes if elected. That hasn’t done anything for the 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans or the generation of kids whose future is being mortgaged.

“Insanity,” said Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Something has got to change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” wrote that those fighting for equal rights were “in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

King revered the Declaration of Independence and its profound message that “[A]ll men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration goes on to state that “[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” In other words, the whole purpose of government is to protect citizens’ innate rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that is, the right to use one’s property, talents, and abilities to pursue one’s dreams.

This ideal doesn’t square with the present government that gives millions of tax dollars to special interest subsidies, corporate bailouts, and wasteful programs. It doesn’t much resemble a government that wants to raise taxes on job creators and robs already-fragile programs like Medicare to pay for new entitlements that we can’t afford. Our founding principles establish a government for the people by the people, not a government for some people at the expense of other people. That isn’t fair.

In the end, standing up for the American dream means returning to the wells of democracy, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once urged. We need a government dedicated to liberty and the opportunity to pursue the good life for ourselves, our families, and our communities.