A Further Look “Democracy In America”

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Cohen
Title: A Further Look At Democracy In America
VTR: 4/09/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. … and I admit right up front to considerable special interest in today’s subject, though I trust it doesn’t represent a conflict of interest … David Cohen, my guest today, is an award winning journalist who was born in England, raised in South Africa, educated at Oxford, and whose first book, Chasing the Red, White and Blue, about his journeys through contemporary America in Alexis de Tocqueville’s now nearly two centuries old footsteps, has just been published by Picador USA.

Now, my admitted special interest, of course, comes from the fact that nearly a half century ago the New American Library first published my own abridged edition of Tocqueville’s historic impressions of Democracy In America. Then as a Mentor book, now as a Signet Classic.

And I’m much given, in explaining Tocqueville to and for my students and others to quoting the young Frenchman himself when he wrote … “it is not then merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America. My wish has been to find there instruction by which we may ourselves profit. I confess that in America I saw more than America. I saw there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, it prejudices and its passions in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.”

And so today I want to begin by asking my guest what his special interest was, in as he writes, Chasing the Red, White and Blue. What was your own objective?

COHEN: Ah, Dick, it’s interesting, the origins of ideas. And when I think back, I think there were some…conscious ones and there were some unconscious ones that only came … became apparent to me later. If I deal first with, you know, in a sense the unconscious derivation … as a writer and as someone who had studied Tocqueville along with other political philosophers at university, at Oxford, I remember having this image where I would be reading Tocqueville and, and, and/or others Hegel, St. Simon, late at night. My wife was sleeping in the bedroom, there was a lamp on and I had this image of a, the spirit of one of these great philosophers coming and… placing themselves in the room and the two of us having a conversation. And in a sense it only occurred to me after I’d done the book … that is what I did with deTocqueville. I traveled and had a conversation, an extended conversation with him over a…over a two year period. He was a very charming traveling companion. He had something interesting to say about everything and of course, he never answered back. That was the unconscious derivation. The conscious one came out of my experience, I suppose, in South Africa. I grew up in a country defined by inequality. And Tocqueville talked about a country of great equality where… equality of opportunity and of conditions. And he thought that the equality was the creative element from which all other facts derived.

And when I came here I saw a country where the gaps between the wealthy and the poor, between the “haves” and the ‘have-nots” was widening dramatically and it made me curious. What if inequality and no longer equality is the defining creative element of American society?

HEFFNER: You’re sort of holding Tocqueville’s feet to the fire if I understand you. You seem to me to be saying, Tocqueville … you … your fame, your reputation or based upon your expertness as an observer, and you observed equality and I come here and of course equality isn’t the theme that you thought it was in terms of something dominating American life. Is that true?

COHEN: Well, equality of ends … the equality that Tocqueville described of there not being any great wealth and any great poverty and everyone being roughly middle class. Of course he conveniently, that he’s talking about the Whites, although he forgot to make that caveat within his Introduction, conveniently. I, I did not expect to find that. But, the, the American dream, of which he is perhaps one of the … gives the very…one of the very first renderings thereof … the, the idea of the equality of opportunity … when…this dream is not just a dream for Americans. It’s a dream for people throughout the world and we receive it through literature, through films and when we come … when you come to this country you expect to see that, that equality of opportunity, at least, exists.

And for me, my very first experience when I came here, I came here on a fellowship, it was an incredibly powerful experience because I came, if you like, with some skills … I was already in a stage of my career where I was, I was…I was moving in a way that Americans embraced. And to come to America with skills as a middle class person, educated … there’s no better place to get ahead and to move ahead.

But there … I encountered over time a very different America that you, you encounter if you come into this country in a very different way. And that, allied with certain statistics that were thrust under my nose because I was based at Columbia University at the National Center for Children in Poverty, so very early on I came in touch with the poverty statistics, the child poverty statistics and inequality statistics.

And then something else crossed my desk, which made me really curious. And this was that the fastest growing jobs in America, half the fastest growing jobs were in the, were in poverty impacted sectors or type of, type of work … cashiers, janitors, waiters, waitresses, nurses aides, etc. And the other half of the fastest growing jobs were in highly educated areas like IT engineers, biomedicine … the path from one to the other was in obviously no longer hard work. It was education. And the more I looked around and the more I investigated, I did not see equality of opportunity through the schools, as a, as a…as a possibility. Something that had so impressed de Tocqueville … free public education.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting. Two years ago… the people at the New American Library, Penguin Putnam, Putnam now, asked me if I would do another … if I would just revise my Introduction in the edition to Tocqueville.

And I basically did not because to do so I would have had to have to turned things on their heads. I would have had to have said to my readers, “I don’t believe what I wrote nearly 50 years ago. And I see Tocqueville in a very different way today.” But I think what I wrote then was accurate. What he did do was amazing. But he couldn’t look into a crystal ball. He couldn’t foresee the industrial revolution, he couldn’t see the dichotomization of America that you see now, the results of which you see now. And yet you seem to be taking him over the coals.

COHEN: Well, I, I think though that he made some very interesting … his mini thesis, if you like, is that if you have equality of opportunity, that leads to happiness because then people have sense of self-empowerment. There’s a sense of urgency. And he says, you know, the Americans are, are much happier than the people I know back in France. And he ties it to equality of opportunity. So…

HEFFNER: Was that… inaccurate?

COHEN: No. I think it’s a very powerful… thesis.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying there isn’t that opportunity now.

COHEN: I, I…I think that this … the op, the fact that there isn’t this opportunity has not been properly acknowledged in this country. It’s not up there on the agenda. The American dream is very storied. The…America is very good at holding up its successes in klieg lights and its failures, the vulnerable… the vulnerability gets… pushed under the table, pushed under the rug.

Well…there, there are certain consequences of that. But how, how you tackle that in, in…it, it became…it … it was, for me, quite … it was…to try and explore why Americans are so unconcerned about the “have-nots” in this country and why they … why inequality was not an issue on the agenda. And, and why the minimum wage couldn’t be raised $1.00 an hour when it just seemed so humane to do so, and everybody was saying it should be done, seemed to me … one of…was one of the interesting things that lead me on the journey.

HEFFNER: Well you say, “one of the interesting things”, that’s a very tepid statement. You are, you feel much more strongly than that this was an interesting thing.

COHEN: Well, I do. I think that, I think that ineq … I grew up in a country where, where if inequality becomes the norm, there is … I mean absence makes the heart grow harder … by absence, I mean separation. And … this country, the “haves” and the “have-nots” there is geographical separation, there is psychological separation, there is all sorts of separation and then to connect and to feel for the person in the other boat.

I mean Tocqueville’s connection between equality and his concept of, of self-interest properly understood … which I’ll get to … but he, he…he makes the connection that if people are…are, are roughly in the same position they can imagine that what happens to X could happen to them …”there, but for the grace of God, go I” and that creates an empathy and a compassion which leads them to behave in a way which he called, ‘the doctrine of self-interest properly understood”. Which we may today call “enlightened self interest”, although I think it was a little bit more developed than that.

HEFFNER: But don’t you think that’s still true. If you remove racial barriers and if you remove what has always ex…existed in America, a bottom rung on the ladder that Tocqueville seemed to be talking about the second, the third, and the fourth “going up” rungs on the American ladder.

COHEN: No doubt. I start off in my book saying, “how has this change happened?” and one of the conclusions is that, you know, Tocqueville was talking about inequality, of course, between Whites only. Now he didn’t … he, he is very compassionate in his diaries about the plight of Blacks and slaves and, and…and Afri…and, and…and American Indians, but he con…he doesn’t include that in his Introduction and Conclusion and as you know, readers of history and Presidents and, and…and they read and they take from the Introduction and the Conclusion and the realities …

HEFFNER: Yes, but you see that is … if you forgive me my … criticism is a poor word … that’s my analysis of the book … your book, David, because I think you want Tocqueville to have done something that he wasn’t pretending to do. Because, as you say, readers … Presidents … others …


HEFFNER: … take what they want from this and Tocqueville understood that racial antagonism …

COHEN: Ahhh … yes …

HEFFNER: … the fact of slavery would lead to great conflict.

COHEN: Ahh, but it…but Tocqueville held up a mirror to this country. A mirror which this country then held up to itself. So by taking de Tocqueville’s route and taking what he said at face value, I’m therefore challenging as well the image that this country likes to hold of itself and I’m using one of the icons … one of, one of American icons to do so. So…one … you know, definitely and de Tocqueville made many mistakes. One of his mistakes was he misunderstood the inheritance laws. He thought equality was something fated and he got it completely wrong. He thought that on death people’s estates would automatically get broken up and that obviously only happened when you died intestate and rich people never died intestate. That only happened to poor people.

HEFFNER: Who didn’t know better?

COHEN: Who didn’t know better. And so the idea that equality was something fated was, was…was false and equality would have to be fought for by each succeeding generation.

HEFFNER: You know, when you … point after point … indicate in Chasing the Red, White and Blue the, the mistakes, or the misinterpretations in Tocqueville, I think to myself, “well what did you expect?” I mean why not take from Tocqueville what we can … his very, very, very clever, wise observations on the impact of democracy or equality upon the arts, upon creative people, etc. and understand that where he was wrong, when he wrote, he could hardly have foreseen what did happen to us.

COHEN: I think that Tocqueville, his achievement was remarkable. To, to write a book that is remembered 170 years later and used the way it is, is extraordinary. And obviously… some people … he’s going to make mistakes, particularly as he was so general. His chapters go from “Why Americans have small statues, rather than big ones”, quite esoteric some things, and very charming. But, if I didn’t point out those inconsistencies, you would be sitting here and saying to me, “But these things de Tocqueville got wrong.”

And certain…there are certain … the reason … the, the ones that are pointed out … that were wrong…inconsistencies and mistakes that you and other historians know about, but which the general public are not aware, and I was certainly not aware when I started this project. I was not aware that Tocqueville got the inheritance laws wrong; I was not aware that he had, he had written, the biggest chapter in his book on the other races, but he had excluded that completely.

I understood for the first time why de Tocqueville got quoted in the way that he did and how he had allowed that to happen.

HEFFNER: Well, you say “how he had allowed it to happen”, the quotations came, the references came long after his death, in a sense, that …

COHEN: But he was the author of that in some ways …


COHEN: … by leaving that out.

HEFFNER: Okay. All right, but you know, let me, let me ask you about this comment in a, in a review from Booklist. The last line, “Travelogue as social commentary, Cohen’s account will appeal to readers dissatisfied with contemporary America.” Fair statement?

COHEN: Well, I think that that review came out just after September the 11th, there was quite a lot of patriotism, it was very difficult for people to read a book that was critical in some ways of America. I think that the, the book is a … I mean since then I haven’t had that kind of statement, that it would only be appealing, as a way to kind of …

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute … not only appealing, but David, let me, let me stand up to the bat and use my own words, but I’ll …

COHEN: Okay.

HEFFNER: … quote this … Cohen’s account will appeal to readers dissatisfied with contemporary America”. Don’t you think that’s true?

COHEN: I think it is true. It will appeal to readers dissatisfied with contemporary America, but I would hope that it would be taken on board by people who are also satisfied with their lot. And maybe that’s too much to hope, but that is … I mean when you write a book, you, you’re…you, you wanting to get beyond a particular audience.

HEFFNER: You see, I think you’re, you’re being very, very critical, and I don’t … and I applaud you for that because where you are critical is where we need to be criticized. The mythology that you’re describing, is mythology that confounds us as well as people from overseas. We do believe… what you have decried as mythology and we are blinded by that, too. How do we ever change if we don’t know what the facts are. So I think it’s true. It will appeal to those who are dissatisfied with American life in the sense that they want others to understand where our fault lines are. And you make them very, very clear. It’s an incredible warning. But perhaps national hypocrisy of proclaiming one set of ideas and seeming to live by another.

COHEN: Well, I mean that’s an interesting thought … occurred to me … do you think as, as, as a…as a scholar of Tocqueville that if he had, if, if had got right what he got wrong … if he hadn’t … if, if in the picture that he had painted of America was less glowing in some … I mean in, in…in many ways he’s very critical of America …


COHEN: … points out. But if, if he had, he had talked about an American a different way … if he had included, for example, the, the…the plight of, of Black people and Indians within his general propositions, do you think he would be so remembered by Americans today as he is?

HEFFNER: Well, you see, I think that what equality meant for Tocqueville is something different from what you read … your thinking. Appropriately enough. About… the slave population, the Black population. You’re thinking about Native Americans. You’re thinking about how we treated both groups and all other groups that were not like that middle class that he saw. But equality to me, and you certainly touch on this in your book, had to do with the … with something political. Had to do with the ability to speak out … again I don’t pretend that the dispossessed in our country effectively have the ability to speak out, but I think essentially Tocqueville was talking about a society in which more, rather than less …


HEFFNER: … one speaks out. One votes.

COHEN: And he was comparing it to France.

HEFFNER: And that comparison was rather horrendous.


HEFFNER: And he was wondering how that is going to impact upon us at home, upon the French at home …

COHEN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And, and still what concerns me most in, in your analysis is the expectation that Tocqueville .. 175 years ago could have seen the Industrial Revolution, which of course, was aborning while he was here. Everything takes place at all times, but we weren’t there.

COHEN: I, I think that … I mean, I…when, when I take deTocqueville with me on my journey, it’s not really to point up “this is what you got wrong, this is what’s changed.” Its really in a sense saying, ‘if you were coming back today, what would you see and what would you make of it?”

HEFFNER: What do you think he would write.

COHEN: I think that he would, he would … well, he would see the inequality …

HEFFNER: I think he might very well write “Chasing the Red, White and Blue”.

COHEN: Well, I … that would be a, a lovely thought. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Particularly if he did what you did, you went beyond his footsteps at one point, you went to California.

COHEN: Which was … I think he would have gone there in a heartbeat because it was the frontier and he saw the frontier as very much defining certainly the optimism that was very much part of the American character … the forward looking mindset. He would have been fascinated by Silicon Valley and, and California.

HEFFNER: Right. But in the nine…in the 1820s and 30s he wouldn’t have seen the Silicon Valley.

COHEN: No way. No.

HEFFNER: So that, in a sense, Tocqueville can’t be blamed quite so much for not foreseeing what very few foresaw.

COHEN: Oh, I … goodness me, I mean, I, I…I don’t for one moment think that my book will be remembered in 170 years time. And he took …to be… he was incredibly prescient. He forec…he forecast the rise of America and Russia as the two superpowers. That America would dominate Russia because that was about an expansion of the individual rather than a contraction. He was prescient about the Civil War. He was prescient about, I think, one of his most brilliant observations is when he’s sailing down the Ohio, and on the one hand is Ohio which is a Free State, no slavery, and he sees people industrious, working buildings going up. And on the other side of the Ohio is Kentucky … slavery. And he sees nothing happening whatsoever. And he understands that slavery basically enslaved the slave masters, well as the slave. It, it diminished the concept of work, so no one would work cause that was done by slaves. And he took that back to France and he … that observation that he had within America, which I think’s very graphic. He used that to try and influence the French government to abolish slavery in some of their colonies and was successful.

HEFFNER: David, what ticked you off most … we just have two minutes left. What ticked you off most about California. I’m fascinated by that.

COHEN: About California … what, on a personal level?

HEFFNER: Yes, of course.

COHEN: Well, I, I … you, you arrive there and you’re a writer and you’re driving the little mini-car and everyone’s ti… you know, everyone’s driving these SUVs and you make eye contact with the hub of their wheel and you, and…you can’t help but enter into an alternate reality, and think “well, what, why is it that I’m in this little schlepperdick car and they’re, they’re in, in…in the great big one?”. And you start to measure yourself …

HEFFNER: Cause you’re a writer.

COHEN: You’re a writer, but at that moment you’re just anyone else, and, and you’re just anyone. And you’re just…you can’t but be effected by the attitudes of, of everyone around you there. It’s very hard to hold on to your own normality. As a writer you often get that when you go back and reflect. But when you’re in the moment … that was, that was…that was quite a…an experience to be in Silicon Valley with people who said to me, “I’m worth a million dollars … one day I’ll be worth something”.

HEFFNER: It’s true. One day they would be worth something, but it wasn’t to be told in terms of the, of the millions of dollars. It was California, and it was the South that seemed to me to bother you the most. Is that fair … on my part … to see that?

COHEN: I, I was bothered by things that I saw throughout. I, I…I was … the inequality and the, and the poverty and the fact that it doesn’t … there is no outrage in this country. There is no … or there’s certainly no enough to say there is no is unfair. But it doesn’t arise on the agenda as much as one would think it should. That was ve…that was disturbing. And to meet people who have been, to some extent demonized and to see these are hardworking people working full time jobs, living in poverty … living a life of survival not fulfillment. And that is … there’s a lot of pain. There’s a lot of pain out there and that was, that was very humbling.

HEFFNER: David Cohen, you expressed that pain in Chasing the Red, White and Blue. And I hope that people read you … I hope they read you 175 years from now and I hope that America has changed, changed to reflect more the sort of thing that Tocqueville felt and thought than the sort of image you received with your own two eyes. Thank you for joining me today.

COHEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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