Anand Giridharadas returns to this weeks Victory Sessions to discuss his recent article in the New York Times: “Reviving the Idea of America”. FULL INTERVIEW!
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — America, that shining city upon a hill, seems ever more like a half-lit town upon a hummock.
It feels to many of its people less a problem of structures and numbers, grave and real as they are, than a challenge of spirit. The future has become something to fear. To change one’s destiny seems — and statistically is — crushingly hard. The political system America once commended to the world no longer appears to work in its own backyard. Old habits and new realities mingle uneasily: should we shop as frenziedly as the television asks us to this Christmas, or rather save like the Chinese?
It was in a moment much like this, in the middle part of the 19th century, that the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville decided to have himself an American adventure. The difference is that, back then, America was the India/China/Brazil of its time, and Europe was playing the role of 2011 America. Tocqueville saw himself fast becoming a citizen of the past, and so went to see about the onrushing future.
So bleak is the news from the United States that it is easy to forget the American magic that Tocqueville found and so masterfully distilled in prose. But his account of that magic is vitally important, for it is surely more than the U.S. economy that needs fixing. The culture appears to have lost its mojo, its churning energy. Tocqueville, perhaps, offers clues to how to bring it back.
He observed a lived practice of equality in the United States that struck him as fundamentally different from European mores (excluding — and it was a giant exclusion — American slaves, whose realities he all but ignored). But if today Americans have divided into rival camps that speak of equality, on one hand, and self-reliance, on the other, Tocqueville found that the two ideas worked well together in the American experience, even reinforced each other.
“As social equality spreads there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained to keep enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs,” he wrote. “Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.”
Tocqueville admired the resulting values of middleness: a society defined by the needs and aspirations of the people in the middle, not by the overwhelming demands of the vast poor, nor by the gilded ambitions of the rich. Government was limited, local, even intimate, because it was neither hijacked from above by the aristocrats nor from below by the needy, appetitive mob.
Today, for all the partisanship in American life, there is a near-consensus on the idea that a president “creates jobs.” At a recent Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked to enumerate how many jobs they would create. (Some demurred; Mitt Romney, private sector man that he is, gave the precise figure of 11.5 million in one term — or 7,900 jobs per day.)
Especially because it comes from the party more suspicious of government activity, Tocqueville would have found this notion of “creating jobs” quite astonishing. The American that he encountered “trusts fearlessly in his own powers, which seem to him sufficient for everything,” he wrote. “Suppose that an individual thinks of some enterprise, and that enterprise has a direct bearing on the welfare of society; it does not come into his head to appeal to public authority for its help.”
But the spirit of free enterprise he admired was less about too-big-to-fail outfits than about small ones: bakers and butchers and tillers of the soil. Because these enterprises were small and self-contained, they rose when they deserved to rise and fell, similarly, on merit. This peculiarly American churning impressed Tocqueville greatly.
That churning had important social consequences. It was connected, Tocqueville thought, to the American sense of possibility: in a society in flux, when “castes disappear and classes are brought together,” he wrote, “the human mind imagines the possibility of an ideal but always fugitive perfection.” Here, again, equality had contradictory features: because humans could become anything, in theory, they aspired to greatness. They believed in their “indefinite perfectibility.”
That faith in perfectibility appears to have retreated in American life. It lives on in weight-loss programs and self-help books — or, more seriously, in a more open devotion to religion than commonly found in overwhelmingly secular Europe. But the belief that you might die in a markedly better existence than the one you came into is fading. And for good reason: a study published last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Americans now experience lower social mobility than prevails in almost any other rich country.
In a churning society, Tocqueville observed — again heeding slaves not at all — “servants do not form a race apart, they have no customs, prejudices or mores peculiar to themselves.” But in America today waiting tables is becoming more of a lifelong occupation and less of a side gig for college students; tattoos are becoming de rigueur for a class of Americans who know they have little chance of climbing into a world where those tattoos could pose a problem; the 1 percent and the 99 percent glare angrily at each other. Few in either camp feel any realistic prospect of crossing over to that other side.
A Tocquevillean reading of today’s America, then, may venture beyond the observation that it is stagnating. It might go so far as to say that it is calcifying, that it risks becoming a society of castes. In such a society, Tocqueville wrote, speaking of his Europe, “everyone thinks that he can see the ultimate limits of human endeavor quite close in front of him, and no one attempts to fight against an inevitable fate.”
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A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: Reviving the Idea of America.