In search of a forgotten dream

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled through America, and hailed its unique spirit of equality.

In America, I could not have asked for a more informed, or charming, back-seat driver. He had something interesting to say about everything, and he never answered back. He was dead, you see - though, as the author of a timeless classic, very much alive. For two years I retraced the route of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the renowned book Democracy in America. Now that I am back in London, I find myself constructing e-mails to him in my head, wanting to continue the conversation. In particular, I want to ask him what he makes of the American response to 11 September, given that he began his epic 1831 journey just a few hundred yards from what we today call Ground Zero, and given that he had so much to say about the American character.

Bonjour Alexis! C'est moi! What are you thinking? Now that the twin towers are gone? Did the indomitable spirit and compassion of the ordinary American surprise you? Probably not, monsieur. For as you wrote: "This is an extraordinarily gentle, empathetic and compassionate people." But what would you say, monsieur, if I were to report that the American response to 11 September proves you right, only to prove you so very wrong?

You would concede that it is easy for a nation to pull together in times of outside threat, that the real test of character is whether this compassion for the vulnerable flows in normal times as well as in crisis. What's more, monsieur, what I have observed may shed light on this claim being bandied about in some quarters, that Americans are insensitive to the underdog, in particular, to the poorer, "less civilised nations". But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

I break off, pour myself a cup of coffee. The trouble with talking to dead people, I muse, is that you have to work twice as hard - you have to play both ends.

Maintenant, mon frere, I read what you wrote when I was an impressionable undergraduate and I believed that America really was as you described it - a place of unparalleled equality, social mobility and compassion towards the less fortunate. But when I got there, pah! I found instead a land of dramatic inequality, where the gap between the haves and have-nots was not narrowing, but widening. You were always big on proof, Alex, so try this for starters: in the past 25 years, the average real income of the poorest fifth of families has fallen by 21 per cent, whereas that of the richest fifth has risen by 30 per cent. If the poor were getting richer but at a slower rate than the wealthy, that would be one thing. But what these census statistics show is that the poor are actually getting poorer.

Do I have your attention, monsieur?

Oui, I thought it significant, too. Especially since equality is the fulcrum on which your analysis of the American character turns. To quote back to you the words with which you began your treatise: "No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions. It was easy to see the immense influence of this basic fact on the whole course of society. It gives a particular turn to public opinion and a particular twist to the laws, new maxims to those who govern and particular habits to the governed . . . It creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs and modifies whatever it does not create. So the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived, and all my observations constantly returned to this nodal point."

Yes, Alexis, your portrait of the compassionate American was premised on this observation of equality. For as you so astutely observed, "equality, which makes men feel their freedom, also shows them their weakness", creating empathy between them, but this "same man who is full of humanity toward his fellows when they are also his equals becomes insensible to their sorrows when there is no more equality. It is therefore to this equality that we must attribute his gentleness, even more than to his civilisation and education."

So curiosity got the better of me. I was tempted to find out: what if inequality - and not equality - has become the defining creative element of American society? To what kind of thoughts, words, behaviour and attitudes - indeed, to what kind of a people - might such a society give birth?

Until later, mon frere. Click

Alexis de Tocqueville, son of an aristocrat, was just 26 when he made his epic nine-month journey through the United States. America was a smaller place then: it had a population of 13 million, compared to 270 million today, and it extended to the west only about as far as the Mississippi. De Tocqueville had glimpsed the country when it was a fledgling nation, yet for the past 170 years his dissection has been regarded as the last word on the American character.

It was time to dust off the old master, perhaps even update him. So it was that, three years ago, I spread out a map of his original 1831 journey and scribbled down an itinerary, an edited version of de Tocqueville's route: I would start in Manhattan; journey up to Flint, Michigan; over the Ohio River Valley from Pittsburgh to Louisville; then down the Mississippi Delta, from Memphis to New Orleans; returning through Alabama in the Deep South, and ending up, like the Frenchman, in Washington DC. I made one addition: Silicon Valley, new frontier and command centre of the information age.

In the ensuing months, I met a cross-section of Americans - white, African American and Hispanic - from Madison Avenue estate agents and Washington lobbyists to supermarket cashiers and bus drivers. In this respect, I already differed from Tocqueville, whose informants - his diaries show - tended to come exclusively from the white and male opinion elite.

In Manhattan, where one-quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line ($16,000 for a family of four), I sought to understand how the dramatically widening income gap might affect life chances - in particular, equality of opportunity. The testimony of Carlos Reyes, a security guard on Wall Street, was typical of what low-income, service sector employees had to say.

"My seven-year-old son is in the second grade at the local public school," he explained. "It's completely underfunded and lacking resources, and most of the kids are from teenage mothers with fathers in jail. His teacher just wants to survive the day. When I was at school, at least they taught me to read and write and do arithmetic. My son won't even learn that, unless I teach him. It's not an education my child is getting; it's a guide to survival. My children have been put in a position where they will not be able to compete. I wish I had the money to move to a better area, or to send them private, but I don't. I'm up at 4am to go to work in a job I hate, the last vacation I had was never, and I can't even say it's worth it because my children will get the education to do better than me. How do you think that makes me feel? Trapped. That the American dream ended with my generation."

The statistics show that, in many parts of America - of which New York City and California are prime examples - the public school system has become the place where the nation's poor are educated. In New York, it used to be the case that public schools (the equivalent of British state schools) were of mixed class and race, but today only 15 per cent of the enrolment is white, and 75 per cent receive free school lunches. In other words, three-quarters of the children come from families that are officially poor. The exam results of these schools are appalling, with two-thirds of fourth-graders failing the state reading and writing test. But instead of putting more resources into these schools, the city administration pumps in fewer. It has other priorities, like giving away $10bn in tax breaks that will benefit the wealthy. The message is clear: if you want a decent education for your children, you have to be rich enough to pay for it. The upper middle class and the wealthy, overwhelmingly white, have taken the cue, sending their children to private or religious schools where annual tuition fees range from $5,000 to $20,000.

What you have is a segregated education system. But it is not just the poor who are affected. Public service employees such as nurses, teachers, policemen and firemen - people who consider themselves middle-class - told me that their number-one concern is their children's inability to compete because they are stuck in the poorly performing schools of the public system.

It used to be argued that the difference between being poor in America and being poor in Britain was that in America, at least, you could rise out of your class. Upward mobility is the leitmotif of the American dream. But Americans increasingly acknowledge that this equality of opportunity is a myth. Jack Litzenberg, a director at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the 16th-largest philanthropic foundation in the US, is scathing about where his country is headed: "We Americans don't believe in society today; we believe in individuality. We hang on to the myth that rugged individualism is what counts, that we can make it simply and exclusively by our own actions. It is an entirely false belief. For the vast majority of Americans, the most important determinant of their success, or lack of it, is the situation into which they are born and the opportunity that affords. Equality is a myth. Social mobility is increasingly a myth. The American dream is a myth. But we hold on to these myths and they define who we are."

In this climate of denial, even the well off are prone to anxiety. Adam Hart Diamond, the 27-year-old owner of an estate agent business, explains to me why he works a 70-hour week, with no time for girlfriends. "What drives you?" I ask him.

"Not having. Not having money scares the shit out of me."

"How much do you make?"

"I'd say a couple of hundred thou a year, but that's not money," he says.

"How much do you need to feel secure?"

"I dunno," he says. "Twenty million? Twenty million and I'll walk."

"Twenty million?" I laugh.

"That'll do it," he says, scowling.

"Why do you need so much?"

"It's not so much. I don't think you're considered rich with $20m . . . This may be the greatest city in the world, but if you don't have money, you are no one and nobody will care about you. Money, money, money . . ." he snaps his fingers three times to accentuate his words, ". . . the only thing that makes me feel safe in this town is money."

Perhaps Diamond is an extreme case, but I nevertheless encountered a real sense of anxiety brought about by a hardening of the divide between rich and poor. It is a divide given frightening currency by recent US Bureau of Labour statistics, which show that half of the fastest-growing jobs in America pay poverty-level wages. (The four jobs with the most growth are cashiers, janitors, retail salespeople and waitresses. These trends exist in all 50 states.) But the story doesn't end there. The other half of the fastest-growing jobs are in high-paying professions that require higher education. With the flight of manufacturing to cheap-labour developing countries, America has become a post-industrial two-tier economy, with access between the tiers mediated, by and large, by a rationed good: post-secondary education.

It is sobering to realise that, despite a work ethic which holds as an article of faith that those willing to work hard will achieve a better life, the number of people who will work hard but stay poor is structurally set to rise, not fall.

Inequality has become a fact on the ground. But how, I wondered, had it influenced the feelings and attitudes that people had for one another?

De Tocqueville had described a nation of good Samaritans, with people constantly helping one another - as long as they were not black or American Indian. He recounts how (white) Americans had an intuitive grasp of the concept of enlightened self-interest (towards other white Americans). "The Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest properly understood. It gives them pleasure to point out how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth . . . " The principle was universally accepted among Americans. "You hear it as much from the poor as from the rich," he said.

But the majority of the Americans I spoke to were not big on self-interest properly understood. Take Scott Swedorski, 28, who as the founder of one of the most popular websites in the world - TUCOWS, pronounced "two cows", which stands for "the ultimate collection of Winsock software" - has already made his millions. Swedorski was simply being frank when he told me: "I never give poor people a second thought. I guess you could call it selfish. But I bet that everybody who works in this office feels the same way, that I am typical of my generation. To be honest, I avoid poor people. I give them an extremely wide berth." Unlike the super-rich from earlier generations who created philanthropic foundations to give back to society, Swedorski feels that the less fortunate do not deserve a dollar out of his burgeoning bank account. "I don't see why I should help them," he says. "I do not see any connection between myself and these people. America is supposed to be a melting pot, one happy family, the same culture, but it's nothing like that. My generation is more selfish than prior generations. We don't care about anything other than our own self-preservation. Our grandparents went through unifying things, like the world wars, but we are the yuppie generation. We have tunnel vision and no guilt."

I wish I could report otherwise, but on my journey I found an alarming lack of interest in the poor. The haves had purposefully separated themselves - geographically, socially and emotionally - from the have-nots. In some parts of the country, the widening income gap had not so much frayed the social fabric as ripped it apart. In contrast, the Americans de Tocqueville met had understood the value of enlightened self-interest. It was, he thought, an important part of what made them into a generous nation. It was a simple but profound concept: by helping the less fortunate, you ended up helping, in both material and spiritual ways, yourself.

Religion played an important part in this sensibility. The Church, he realised, was one of the great causative influences in the making of America. It restrained and softened the worst excesses of materialism, acting as a moral handbrake. Today, the Church in America is as influential as ever, but it is deeply split, with two profoundly opposed Christian ethics competing to be the dominant ideology. On my journey through the Deep South, I discovered that the conservative ethic, predominantly Protestant and devoutly evangelical, is totally uninterested in the problems of the poor. Progressive Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand, have adopted impressive high-profile commitments to the poor.

America has undoubtedly made strides on racism, and yet, even here, there is much ambivalence, especially among young Hispanics, as the following interview illustrates. The sisters Liz and Guadalupe Ramos were "hanging" with their friend Lupe Navarro in their driveway. All three are of Mexican parents, and they were either born in America or raised there from a young age. Liz, 18, balanced her ten-month-old son on her lap. Lupe, 19, cradled her one-month-old. The two of them talked and laughed about "sucky" diapers and baby vomit, their conversation spiked with the cool bravado of youth. The 17-year-old Guadalupe, looking on, said: "I got better things to do with my life than have babies while I'm still a kid."

"Oh yeah? Like what?" challenged Lupe.

"Like, er, finish school?" I interjected.

"Nah," said Guadalupe. "I dropped out back in ninth grade."

"Why?" I asked.

"B-b-b-b-borrrring."

"Huh?"

"Because it's boring, and a waste of time. I went to pick walnuts instead."

"That was more interesting?"

"You know - if it wasn't for us Mexicans, Americans would have nothing to eat."

"How's that?" I asked.

"Well, you won't find white people picking walnuts and grapes."

"And you won't find Guadalupe picking walnuts, either," shrieked Lupe. "She didn't last one week!"

"Hey, I got the fever. I couldn't breathe," Guadalupe protested, mock huffing and puffing as she talked.

"The hospital couldn't find nothing." Lupe and Liz laughed raucously.

"They treat you like shit in the fields," shrugged Guadalupe. "I'd rather babysit. I get $7 an hour. That's more than the pickers. And in a few years' time, if I still want, I can go back to school."

"Most children in our school drop out," explained Liz. "I dropped out, too, but now I'm back at night school doing business classes. I want to work with computers. I want to make a lot of money."

"What's a lot of money?" I asked.

"$20 an hour," replied Liz. "My husband, Alfredo, he works in a packing factory and he earns $6 an hour. He says his boss screams and swears at them all the time. 'Hurry the fuck up! You guys don't know shit! There are more Mexicans to take your job if you don't like it!' "

"What do you expect? It's a racist country," said Guadalupe. "Look who's running for president - they're all white. The president's white, the government's white, the senator's white, they're all white. They act like they care about us, but they don't care."

Guadalupe's mother, Maria Ramos, wearing an apron and a frown, who had been hovering on the fringe of the conversation, burst forward, unable to restrain her agitation. "If you were to study," she jabbed her finger at Guadalupe, "if you were to go back to school, you could be president."

"As long as I live, I'll never see a Latino-American president," Guadalupe shouted back. "Who has power in America? It's all whites."

"But if you were to study," her mother countered angrily, "you would better yourself, and with it the whole Mexican race."

This exchange evoked for me the tension between personal responsibility on the one hand and structural problems caused by discrimination on the other. America has always emphasised and encouraged the former. If you don't make it, you have yourself to blame. But if you try, they will help you on your way. I experienced this personally, and I have to say that I found it profoundly liberating. Americans encourage success, whereas we in Britain sometimes feel more at home with failure. The flip side, though, is that Americans eschew vulnerability. "Loser" is a swear word. You see this particularly in Silicon Valley, where the frontier mentality is so powerful, and where the optimistic, forward-looking mindset is obligatory. You see this, too, in their reluctance to look into the shadows, to engage with the one in five children who live in chronic poverty in America. How much more so their reluctance to engage with poorer nations, losers in the age of globalisation?

But de Tocqueville would point out an inconsistency in my argument that he would expect me to resolve.

Mais oui, monsieur . Why did the Americans behave differently in the wake of 11 September?

I think the answer goes like this: if the terrible events of 11 September showed anything, it is that we are all vulnerable - the rich and the poor, the bond dealer and the janitor. Accumulated wealth, for so long seen as a bulwark against bad schools, crime-ridden neighbourhoods and diabolical public health, is simply no defence against acts of terrorism. On 11 September, Americans displayed the character that you marvelled at, monsieur, because on that day they rediscovered that we are all in this together. Today the Red, White and Blue flies everywhere, a symbol of the collective pain and resolve that Americans feel. But peering just over the horizon, you would have wanted to know: can this collective compassion be sustained? Will it be extended to the serried ranks of millions of Americans who are vulnerable day to day beyond the events of 11 September?

At a time when the world is focused on how the outside world relates to Americans, I have glimpsed - like you, Alex - something about how Americans relate to each other.

But permit me, monsieur, to leave you with a final question. Most Americans still cling to the idealised, but outdated, portrait you painted, refusing to consider the possibility that, some day, someone might have to do something about the millions of Americans - and others - being left behind. Is this what you meant by the "tyranny of the majority"?

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David Cohen's Chasing the Red, White, and Blue - a journey in Tocqueville's footsteps through contemporary America is published by Picador USA this month