Présidence Obama: Touche pas à mon rêve américain! (The long march of the American Dream)

Cowboy ObamaIls sont fous ces Américains! (…) Imagine-t-on un Français refuser la Sécurité sociale? Guy Sorman
The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war—and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty—there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan. Fouad Ajami
Faced with this truly puzzling conundrum, Dr. Obama diagnoses a heretofore undiscovered psychological derangement: anxiety-induced Obama Underappreciation Syndrome, wherein an entire population is so addled by its economic anxieties as to be neurologically incapable of appreciating the « facts and science » undergirding Obamacare and the other blessings their president has bestowed upon them from on high. I have a better explanation. Better because it adheres to the ultimate scientific principle, Occam’s Razor, by which the preferred explanation for any phenomenon is the one with the most economy and simplicity. And there is nothing simpler than the Gallup findings on the ideological inclinations of the American people. Conservative: 42 percent. Moderate: 35 percent. Liberal: 20 percent. No fanciful new syndromes or other elaborate fictions are required to understand that if you try to impose a liberal agenda on such a demonstrably center-right country — a country that is 80 percent non-liberal — you get a massive backlash. Charles Krauthammer
Gallup finds 42% of Americans describing themselves as either very conservative or conservative. This is up slightly from the 40% seen for all of 2009 and contrasts with the 20% calling themselves liberal or very liberal. Gallup
La mobilité intergenerationelle de revenu s’avere plus forte en France qu’aux Etats-Unis et plus faible que dans les pays scandinaves. Arnaud Lefranc et Alain Trannoy (2005)
Using the relationship between parents’ and children’s incomes as an indicator of relative mobility, data show that a number of countries, including Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and France have more relative mobility than does the United States.… Compared to the same peer group, Germany is 1.5 times more mobile than the United States, Canada nearly 2.5 times more mobile, and Denmark 3 times more mobile. Only the United Kingdom has relative mobility levels on par with those of the United States. (…) Going back to 1820, per capita gross domestic product in the United States has grown an average of 52 percent for each generation. But since 1973, overall median family income has grown only 0.6 percent per year, a rate that produces a 17 percent increase in the average family’s income for each generation. Thus, unless the rate of economic growth increases, the next generation will experience an improvement in its standard of living that is only one-third as large as the historical average for earlier generations. Robert Silvey
Nous tenons pour évidentes pour elles-mêmes les vérités suivantes : tous les hommes sont créés égaux ; ils sont doués par le Créateur de certains droits inaliénables ; parmi ces droits se trouvent la vie, la liberté et la recherche du bonheur. Déclaration d’indépendance des États-Unis (1776)
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (…) The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. James Truslow Adams (The Epic of America, 1931)
No red-blooded American would pay $ 3.50 for a dream. Editeur (justifiant son refus du titre « The American dream » pour l’ouvrage de James Truslow Adams)
The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. […] The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it. Roosevelt (1933)
The American dream of the family-size farm, owned by the family which operates it, has become more and more remote. The agricultural ladder, on which an energetic young man might ascend from hired man to tenant to independent owner, is no longer serving its purpose. […] A nationwide program under federal leadership and with the assistance of states, counties, communities and individuals is the only solution. Franklin Roosevelt (message au Congrès,  1937)
Shall we pause now and turn back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For ‘each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth’. Franklin Roosevelt (2e discours inaugural, 1937)
We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. . . . when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-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. Martin Luther King J r. (« Letter from a Birmingham Jail », 1963)
I have a dream. Martin Luther King (Lincoln Memorial, 1963)
The dream of conquering the vastness of space – the dream of partnership across the Atlantic – and across the Pacific as well-the dream of a Peace Corps in less developed nations – the dream of education for all of our children – the dream of jobs for all who seek them and need them – the dream of care for our elderly – the dream of an all-out attack on mental illness – and above all, the dream of equal rights for all Americans, whatever their race or color – these and other American dreams have been vitalized by his drive and by his dedication. And now the ideas and the ideals which he so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action. Lyndon B. Johnson, (Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress,  novembre 1963)
Why did men come to that once forbidding land? There was a dream – a dream of a place where a free man could build for himself and raise his children to a better life – a dream of a continent to be conquered, a world to be won, a nation to be made. […] It existed when the first settlers saw the coast of a new world and when the first pioneers moved westward. It has guided us every step of the way. (….) This nation, this idea called America, was always and always will be a new world – our new world. (…) Martin Luther King’s dream was the American Dream. His quest is our quest: the ceaseless striving to live out our true creed. Our history has been built on such dreams and labours. Lyndon B. Johnson (Inaugural Address,  janvier 1965)
The bold and brilliant dream which excited the founders of our nation still awaits consummation. I have no new dream to set forth today, but rather urge a fresh faith in the old dream. Jimmy Carter (discours inaugural, 1977)
Perhaps the most durable interest most voters have is the maintenance of the American dream’ itself; the promise of a better life, and particularly the promise of a better life for one’s children. […] Reagan promised above all that the American dream could be revitalized. Walter Dean Burnham (à propos de la campagne présidentielle de Reagan, 1980)
We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. […] Now, I have used the words « they » and « their » in speaking of these heroes. I could say « you » and « your » because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak – you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. […] Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic « yes. » To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy. Reagan (Inaugural Address, 1981)
Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate. But the themes of this day he would know: our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity. Ronald Reagan (Second Inaugural Address, 1985)
Ten years ago a young girl left Vietnam with her family, part of the exodus that followed the fall of Saigon. They came to the United States with no possessions and not knowing a word of English. Ten years ago – the young girl studied hard, learned English, and finished high school in the top of her class. And this May, May 22nd to be exact, is a big date on her calendar. Just ten years from the time she left Vietnam, she will graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. I thought you might like to meet an American hero named Jean Nguyen. Reagan (Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, février 1985)
They are the entrepreneurs, the builders, the pioneers, and a lot of regular folks – the true heroes of our land who make up the most uncommon nation of doers in history. You know they’re Americans because their spirit is as big as the universe and their hearts are bigger than their spirits. Ronald Reagan (Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union, 1987)
Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. George H.W. Bush (discours sur l’état de l’Union, 1990)
As President, I had a rare opportunity to discover the American Dream in a way that might never have been open to me otherwise. […] I invite you to celebrate with me both Columbus’s dream of a new world and your and my American Dream as well. The connection, I believe, is most appropriate. Gerald Ford (1992)
When I think about opportunity for all Americans, I think about my grandfather. He ran a country store in our little town of Hope. […] My fellow Americans, I end tonight where it all began for me – I still believe in a place called Hope. Bill Clinton (convention nationale du Parti démocrate, juillet)
I remember just thinking what an incredible country this was, if somebody like me would be given the opportunity to meet the president. Bill Clinton («The Man from Hope», évoquant son enfance modeste, sa rencontre avec John Kennedy en 1963, spots télévisés, 1992)
The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one – if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you. Bill Clinton (devant le Democratic Leadership Council, 1993)
For too many families, even when both parents were working, the American Dream has been slipping away. Bill Clinton (second discours sur l’état de l’Union, 1994)
As long as our dreams outweigh our memories America will be forever young. That is our destiny. Bill Clinton (devant le Congrès américain, 2000)
We need a new government for a new century, humble enough not to try to solve all our problems but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves. Bill Clinton (second discours inaugural)
Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate. But the themes of this day he would know: our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity. George W. Bush (Inaugural Address, 2001)
And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States. A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney who studied here but left a little early. So now we know: If you graduate from Yale, you become President; if you drop out, you get to be Vice President. (…) If you’re like me, you won’t remember everything you did here. That can be a good thing. (…) Take, for example, my old classmate Dick Brodhead, the accomplished dean of this great university. I remember him as a young scholar, a bright lad, a hard worker. We both put a lot of time in at the Sterling Library, in the reading room where they have those big leather couches. We had a mutual understanding. Dick wouldn’t read aloud, and I wouldn’t snore. (…) For example, I took a class that studied Japanese haiku. (…) As I recall, one of my academic advisers was worried about my selection of such a specialized course. He said I should focus on English. I still hear that quite often. But my critics don’t realize, I don’t make verbal gaffes; I’m speaking in the perfect forms and rhythms of ancient haiku. I did take English here, and I took a class called « The History and Practice of American Oratory, » taught by Rollin G. Osterwies. And President Levin, I want to give credit where credit is due. I want the entire world to know this: Everything I know about the spoken word, I learned right here at Yale. (…) In my time, they spoke of the « Yale man. » I was really never sure what that was, but I do think that I’m a better man because of Yale. All universities, at their best, teach that degrees and honors are far from the full measure of life. Nor is that measure taken in wealth or in titles. What matters most are the standards you live by, the consideration you show others, and the way you use the gifts you are given. George W. Bush (Commencement Address, Yale University,  mai 2001)
Some people aren’t sure that dream extends to them. George W. Bush (2002)
Is the American Dream Still Possible? David Wallenchinsky (2006)
The traditional American Dream? For most Americans, it’s still a dream—a pipe dream. Richard Oden (Conyers, Ga. 2006)
I have nothing saved for me. I’m putting it all into the kids, so that they can succeed in school. Our parents did everything for us, and I hope to do the same for my kids. I don’t count on anyone else to help us get to where we want to go. It’s all up to me and my family. And I trust in God to help us. Shelly Comer, 43, Dos Palos, Calif, divorced mother of three who also takes care of a friend of her oldest child, annual income: $70,377, 2006 )
It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. ‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one. Barack Obama (convention démocrate, 2004)
Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father — my grandfather — was a cook, a domestic servant to the British. But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before. While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity. And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter. A common dream, born of two continents. My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ”blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined — They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential. (…) And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. (…)  Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are connected as one people (…)  We have more work to do. [Americans] sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better.
(…) We have more work to do —  more work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour; more to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay 4500 dollars a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on; more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college. Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet — in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks — they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead,  and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon. Go in — Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things. (…) People don’t expect — People don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. (…)  The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead. Barack Obama (Democratic National Convention Keynote Address for John Kerry, juillet 2004)
There’s  a reason  education sucks and it is the same reason that it will never ever be fixed… because the owners of this country don’t want that… The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions, forget the politicians, the politicians are put there to give you the idea you have freedom of choice, you don’t. You have no choice you have owners, they own you, they own everything, they own all the important land, they own and control the corporations, they’ve long since bought and paid for the senate the congress the state houses the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all the news and information you hear, they got you by the balls. We know what they want, more for themselves and less for everyone else… and they don’t want an educated citizenry…. they want obedient workers… people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paper work and just dumb enough to passively accept the increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay the longer hours the reduced benefits the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And now they are coming for your social security money…. The table is tilted folks, the game is rigged and nobody seems to care…. That’s what the owners count on… because the owners in this country know the truth, it’s called the American Dream and you have to be asleep to believe it. George Carlin (2005)
It’s like the American Dream in reverse.Barack Obama (janvier 2009)
That’s why my administration is working so hard not only to create and save jobs in the short-term […] but to lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity that will put opportunity within the reach of not just African Americans, but all Americans. All Americans. Of every race. Of every creed. From every region of the country. We want everybody to participate in the American Dream. Barack Obama ( devant la NAACP,  juillet 2009 )
I’m not the President of China, I’m not the President of Japan, I’m not the President of the other participants here. And so I have a direct responsibility to my constituents to make their lives better. That’s why they put me in there. That accounts for some of the questions here, about how concretely does me being here help them find a job, pay for their home, send their kids to college, live what we call the American Dream. And I will be judged by my effectiveness in meeting their needs and concerns. Barack Obama (sommet du G-20, Londres, 2009)
America looks more and more like a class-ridden society. […] Goodbye, Horatio Alger. And goodbye, American Dream. Paul Krugman
It used to be that if you stayed with your job, you would be rewarded. Now there is no guarantee. Cherie Morris, 58, of Stroudsburg, Pa., former flight attendant for TWA, 2006)
Eventually, we will just downsize everything, sell our house and move into a smaller one. Randy Omark (55, former flight attendant for TWA, 2006)
(financial stress) comes from the ‘maybe, could be, should be’ nature of our business.” When the economy is down, people don’t buy a new garage-door system. The cost of gas at the pump is a major factor.  When the price of gasoline goes down, business goes up. (…) The words ‘retirement’ and ‘vacation’ are not in our vocabulary. You know that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song: ‘I owe my soul to the company store’? We don’t think about retirement. They’ll have to take me out of here with my high-top tennies on. (…) The American Dream is a bygone thing. It’s not the way life is anymore. I used to believe I was responsible for my own destiny. But it’s not that simple. Now it’s faith and fortitude. Simone Luevano (46, garage-door installation and repair business in Albuquerque, N.M., 2006)
More than 52% of middle-class Americans think that they’re better off than their parents were, but…
56% think things will be worse for their own children or for future generations.
Nearly 57% say they believe that the middle class in America is decreasing.
51% of employed members of the middle class have experienced either increased health-care costs or a cut in health benefits, and 39% have experienced cuts in overtime, raises or bonuses.
66% say they tend to live from paycheck to paycheck.
47% say that no matter how hard they work, they cannot get ahead.
Nearly 83% say that there is not much money left to save after they have paid their bills.
89% of the respondents believe that businesses have a social responsibility to their employees and to the community, but…
81% believe that American businesses make decisions based on what is best for their shareholders and investors—not what is best for their employees.
74% of the middle class say they take responsibility for their own financial success or failure.
80% say they believe it is still possible to achieve the American Dream. Parade, 2006)
It can be used to club the poor into accepting their lot but it can also be used to make the rich squirm about their luxuries. It encourages people not even to see those aspects of society that make the dream impossible to fulfil for all the Americans. Jennifer Hochschild (politologue)
Le concept de « rêve américain » permet aux présidents d’unifier rhétoriquement une nation américaine de plus en plus diverse et fragmentée. (…) Depuis les années 1970, l’augmentation spectaculaire des chiffres de l’immigration légale (+ 100 % entre 1970 et 2000) et illégale (le nombre d’immigrés clandestins serait passé de 8 à 12,5 millions entre 2000 et 2007, selon le bureau du recensement américain) a rendu ce besoin d’unification encore plus pressant. (…) Le « rêve américain », en incitant l’immigrant à regarder au-delà de sa condition individuelle et à prendre conscience de la communauté qu’il rejoint, permet de recréer le lien social et de préserver l’intégrité de la nation. (…) Si le concept de « rêve américain » est de plus en plus présent dans la rhétorique présidentielle depuis les années 1960, c’est peut-être, enfin, parce que la perspective de voir ce rêve se réaliser s’éloigne, paradoxalement, pour une majorité de citoyens. Certes, les États-Unis se sont considérablement enrichis en termes globaux depuis les années 1970, mais cet enrichissement n’a pas profité à l’ensemble de la population. Les revenus du centile le plus riche ont augmenté de 176 % entre 1970 et 2000, là où le revenu médian des foyers américains n’a augmenté que de 21 %. Parallèlement à l’accroissement des inégalités, la mobilité sociale a fortement décliné entre les années 1970 et les années 2000. Or, c’est cette mobilité qui est au cœur du « rêve américain ». Ce dernier n’a jamais signifié une croyance dans l’égalité réelle, mais a toujours renvoyé à un idéal d’égalité des chances – la classe sociale dans laquelle un individu naissait ne devait pas déterminer son destin économique. (…) Des interprètes plus cyniques du fonctionnement de la politique discerneront dans ces références croissantes au « rêve américain » une volonté de masquer la réalité des inégalités économiques et sociales. La politologue Jennifer Hochschild décrit ainsi le « rêve américain » comme une « idéologie impressionnante » qui permet d’attirer des migrants du monde entier en rendant invisibles les conditions de vie réelles des Américains.
S’il est vrai que de multiples définitions du « rêve » existent, il semble néanmoins que le contenu du rêve puisse être ramené à trois ingrédients essentiels : la revendication de la mobilité sociale comme valeur fondamentale, l’espoir d’une vie confortable mais aussi d’un supplément d’âme et le sentiment d’appartenance à une nation à nulle autre pareille. Autrement dit, le « rêve américain » combinerait des valeurs que l’on se plaît d’ordinaire à opposer : égalité et liberté, matérialisme et spiritualité, exceptionnalisme et uniformité.
Globalement, il semble que les présidents démocrates aient tendance à souligner les limites du rêve, son caractère jamais entièrement accompli. (…) Les présidents républicains tendent, eux, à préconiser un retour aux recettes du passé. Pour eux, le rêve est un acquis que seule l’intervention de l’État dans le domaine économique pourrait mettre en danger. Tout Américain, dès lors qu’il s’y emploie avec suffisamment de détermination et de discipline, peut atteindre le confort matériel et spirituel. (…)Ainsi, le concept de « rêve américain » fait l’objet d’une lutte constante entre démocrates et républicains, tous deux désireux de se l’approprier afin de rassembler les Américains autour de leur projet politique. Ce qui est en jeu dans cette lutte, ce n’est rien de moins que l’avenir de l’Amérique. Aurélie Godet

Poursuite du bonheur, justice pour tous, Manifest Destiny, Melting Pot, rêve des Pères fondateurs, rêve des pionniers, rêve de Martin Luther King, rêve de la « bonne vie » des Puritains,  « charte », rêve d’ascension sociale de Lincoln, rêve d’égalité de Martin Luther King, rêve de la côte (accession à la propriété, réalisation de soi à la californienne), tolérance, charité, compassion, respect de la dignité humaine, nouvelle donne, nouvelle frontiere, « Grande société » nouvelle alliance, faith-based and community initiatives, « rêve individualiste » « rêve communautaire », « self-reliance, « sacrifice, « determination », « flexibility », « pragmatism », « willingness to work hard », histoires des haillons aux richesses d’Horatio Alger

A  la veille d’élections de mi-mandat annoncées catastrophiques pour son parti ou un président américain démocrate au plus bas dans les sondages ne reconnait plus ses electeurs qui lui reprochent notamment de vouloir européaniser leur pays …

Et a l’heure ou, avec le record historique de suppressions d’emplois dans les secteurs traditionnels de salaires élevés et fortes possibilites d’ascension sociale et professionnelle (manufacture ou batiment), la classe ouvrière américaine commence a redouter le déclassement …

Pendant qu’un pays qui dans toutes les études de mobilité intergénérationelle (étrangement muettes, toutefois, sur les stratégies a plusieurs générations?) devance a présent le pays des self-made men embourbé dans l’explosion des inégalités depuis les années 80 et les désillusions  de sa plus longue guerre, voit sa mortalité infantile augmenter a son tour pendant que près d’1 Français sur 2 désigne la France comme le « pays du piston« …

Retour sur ces fous d’Américains qui continuent a « refuser la Sécurité sociale », obstinement accrochés contre apparemment toute évidence a  leur fameux mot d’ordre, double de celui d’American way envisage dans notre avant-dernier billet, d’American dream.

Et plus précisément, avec une fascinante étude d’Aurélie Godet, sur la « longue marche » dudit concept dans la rhétorique présidentielle américaine depuis son invention ou popularisation par un historien dans les années 1930, en tension constante entre liberté et égalité, individualisme et collectivisme, matérialisme et moralisme et dont l’usage et l’instrumentalisation,  semblent croitre a mesure que sa réalité devient plus problématique.

Au point que, pour unifier une nation de plus en plus diverse et un électorat désabusé mais aussi un pouvoir de plus en plus presidentialisé et personnalisé (voire, entre les Bush et les Clinton, quasi-endogamique),  chaque parti et president se le disputent tout en se sentant tenus de s’y réferer constamment (2 fois par semaine pour le seul Obama).

Et meme, pour ne prendre que deux exemples la la fois les plus récents et les plus opposés,  de s’en présenter comme l’incarnation vivante.

Soit, pour un privilegié comme Bush fils, en jouant contre une notoire  tete d’oeuf a la Gore ou un Kerry indécrottablement patricien et francophone  la carte de l’autodérision systématique (l’image, largement fabriquée, du cowboy texan ignorant) qui finira d’ailleurs, comme on le sait, par se retourner contre lui, du moins dans la presse et parmi une partie des élites…

Soit, pour l’actuel president, par une véritable mise en scene de sa propre personne a coup d’autobiographies (3, si j’ai bien compté, pour un homme qui n’a pas encore atteint ses 50 ans!) et de réferences sans fin a son histoire familiale, au risque, comme sont tout pres de lui rappeler ses electeurs, de finir par incarner la condescendance et l’arrogance et d’oublier meme ce pourquoi il avait été élu ?

Le rêve américain dans la rhétorique présidentielle américaine moderne (1937-2010)

Aurélie Godet

Introduction

Même lorsqu’ils attribuent l’invention de l’expression à James Truslow Adams, auteur en 1931 d’une histoire des États-Unis intitulée The Epic of America[1], la majorité des universitaires qui se sont penchés sur l’histoire du « rêve américain » peinent à considérer celui-ci comme un slogan historiquement daté. Ils préfèrent le présenter comme un « idéal-type » wébérien, un concept qui permet de comprendre la spécificité du projet américain dans ce qu’il a d’essentiel, comme si l’expérience américaine dans son ensemble pouvait se définir par la réalisation toujours recommencée d’une sorte de rêve structurel. Dans une étude publiée en 2003, Jim Cullen a ainsi passé en revue les différentes manifestations du rêve tout au long de l’histoire américaine : le rêve de la « bonne vie » dans sa version puritaine, l’expression du rêve sous forme de « charte » (la déclaration d’indépendance), le rêve d’ascension sociale de Lincoln, le rêve d’égalité de Martin Luther King et, pour finir, les rêves plus personnels d’accession à la propriété et de la réalisation de soi, à la californienne (ce que Cullen a nommé poétiquement « le rêve de la côte »)[2].

L’épaisseur idéologique de l’American dream a pareillement été négligée. Il existe bien quelques articles sur l’instrumentalisation politique du rêve à des périodes données (on pense notamment au travail de Bernard Genton sur les affiches de propagande de la National Association of Manufacturers pendant la Grande dépression ou à celui d’Alan DeSantis sur la façon dont le mythe du rêve américain a été « vendu » aux travailleurs noirs du Sud par les journaux du Nord lors de la Grande migration des années 1915-1919[3]), mais guère d’étude synthétique sur les usages politiques du rêve au vingtième siècle. Sans prétendre combler totalement ce manque, nous voudrions au moins lancer le débat en analysant les références à l’American dream dans la rhétorique présidentielle, autrement dit au niveau le plus élevé et le plus symbolique de la vie politique américaine. Partant d’un constat simple (les occurrences du concept n’ont cessé d’augmenter depuis que Roosevelt a, le premier, employé l’expression en 1937), on se demandera si le contenu du rêve tel que défini par les présidents est resté le même ou s’il s’est modifié au gré de besoins politiques conjoncturels. Est-il possible, notamment, d’établir une dichotomie pertinente entre « rêve américain démocrate » et « rêve américain républicain » ? Notre conclusion sera que la référence au rêve, si elle a bien une portée délibérative, s’apparente surtout à une ressource rhétorique destinée à accroître l’avantage du président dans le jeu politique.

Une augmentation spectaculaire des références au «rêve américain» dans les discours présidentiels depuis 1960

Parcours statistique de la période 1937-2010

Pour qui s’intéresse de près à la rhétorique présidentielle, le site Internet de l’American Presidency Project (www.presidency.ucsb.edu) fait figure de mine d’or. Créé en 1999 par John Woolley et Gerhard Peters – deux professeurs de l’université de Californie à Santa Barbara -, il permet de consulter gratuitement l’ensemble des discours prononcés par les présidents américains depuis George Washington[1]. Surtout, il est doté d’un moteur de recherche extrêmement performant qui autorise l’investigation par mots-clés (seuls ou en combinaison) ainsi que par dates[2].

Une première requête, composée des mots « American » et « dream » réunis au sein d’un même syntagme, révèle que l’expression « rêve américain » a été utilisée pour la première fois par Franklin Roosevelt dans un « message au Congrès » daté du 6 février 1937. Le 32e président s’y lamente de l’augmentation du nombre de métayers depuis la fermeture de la « frontière » dans les années 1880 et appelle le gouvernement fédéral à sauver le « rêve américain de la ferme familiale » en mettant en place un programme de réhabilitation du monde rural :

The American dream of the family-size farm, owned by the family which operates it, has become more and more remote. The agricultural ladder, on which an energetic young man might ascend from hired man to tenant to independent owner, is no longer serving its purpose. […] A nationwide program under federal leadership and with the assistance of states, counties, communities and individuals is the only solution[3].

On trouve, bien entendu, des occurrences du mot « rêve » avant 1937 : une requête basée sur le mot « dream » fait apparaître 59 résultats entre 1832 et le début du second mandat de Roosevelt[4]. Mais le terme, privé de son qualificatif, y est constamment doté de connotations négatives. Ainsi, le président Harrison l’emploie dans son discours d’investiture du 4 mars 1841 pour condamner l’esprit « utopique » des réformateurs. Le temps n’est selon lui plus aux rêves, mais à l’action :

If this [that ardent patriotism, that devoted attachment to liberty, that spirit of moderation and forbearance for which our countryman were once distinguished] continues to be the ruling passion of our soul, the weaker feeling of the mistaken enthusiast will be corrected, the Utopian dreams of the scheming politician dissipated, and the complicated intrigues of the demagogue rendered harmless[5].

Roosevelt est donc le premier président chez qui le « rêve » se voit, d’une part, associé à l’adjectif « américain » et, d’autre part, doté d’un contenu explicitement positif (ceci expliquant peut-être cela). Cet usage semble avoir fait école puisque, toujours selon la base de données de l’American Presidency Project, le concept d’« American dream » est réapparu 1869 fois dans les discours des présidents américains depuis le 6 février 1937[6].

Le nombre total d’occurrences de l’expression n’étant, en soi, guère indicatif d’une augmentation ou d’une diminution au cours du temps, les résultats obtenus lors de notre requête initiale ont été classés par président et par année, puis traduits sous forme de graphiques (voir illustrations ci-dessous) .

Trois remarques s’imposent à l’issue de ce travail statistique :

– Alors qu’on aurait pu s’attendre à ce que Ronald Reagan soit le président qui ait utilisé l’expression « American dream » le plus fréquemment (l’importance du « rêve » pour le 40e président a souvent été soulignée par les universitaires et les journalistes depuis 1981[7]), c’est finalement à Bill Clinton, suivi des Bush père et fils, que revient la palme. Notons cependant que Barack Obama pourrait bien détrôner ses prédécesseurs d’ici la fin de son mandat, tant les références au rêve sont nombreuses dans ses discours depuis sa prise de fonctions en janvier 2009 (sa moyenne annuelle dépasse d’ores et déjà celle de George H.W. Bush et de George W. Bush).

– Une étude plus détaillée du graphique montre qu’un cap numérique a été franchi au début des années 1960. Alors qu’on ne comptait qu’une seule occurrence du syntagme « American dream » dans les discours de Franklin Roosevelt, 3 dans ceux de Harry Truman, 5 dans ceux de Dwight Eisenhower et 2 dans ceux de John Kennedy, on compte 31 occurrences des deux mots chez Lyndon Johnson.

– Enfin, notre analyse fait apparaître une augmentation quasi continue des références au « rêve américain » depuis les années 1930, et ce, quelle que soit l’orientation politique des présidents.

Comment expliquer cette popularité croissante ?

Tentatives d’explication

L’influence de James Truslow Adams et de Martin Luther King

Il faut tout d’abord rappeler que, s’il arrive que les présidents innovent en matière rhétorique (Franklin Roosevelt a ainsi forgé le concept de « nouvelle donne » en 1932, John Kennedy celui de « nouvelle frontière » en 1960), ils s’inspirent le plus souvent de discours prononcés par d’autres acteurs de la vie politique et/ou culturelle américaine. L’apparition de l’expression « American dream » chez Roosevelt en 1937 et sa généralisation à partir des années 1960 peuvent ainsi être rapprochées de deux événements extérieurs à la sphère présidentielle : la publication de The Epic of America de James Truslow Adams en 1931 et l’allocution de Martin Luther King sur les marches du Lincoln Memorial en 1963.

Le livre d’Adams, s’il est aujourd’hui un peu oublié, a connu un tel succès dans les années 1930 qu’un an à peine après sa parution, le président de l’association des historiens américains y a fait une référence appuyée dans son allocution annuelle, regrettant toutefois que l’épopée soit limitée un peu frileusement aux frontières des États-Unis[8]. En 1935, un long extrait de la conclusion du livre a paru dans Scholastic Review, revue pédagogique de grande diffusion, sous le titre « The American Dream »[9]. Rien d’étonnant, donc, à ce que le « rêve » d’Adams ait accédé au premier plan du discours politique national cinq ans plus tard.

En 1963, Martin Luther King a donné une nouvelle jeunesse à l’expression « rêve américain » en en faisant le sujet principal de son sermon « I have a dream », prononcé devant plus de 200 000 militants pour l’égalité des droits. Ce discours, qui a valu au pasteur baptiste une renommée durable, a profondément influencé Lyndon Johnson et explique très certainement pourquoi le discours sur l’état de l’Union qu’il a prononcé devant le Congrès en 1965 mentionne le « rêve américain » à cinq reprises.

Encore aujourd’hui, l’influence de Martin Luther King se fait sentir dans certains discours présidentiels. On en voudra pour preuve les propos de Barack Obama devant la NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) en juillet 2009 :

That’s why my administration is working so hard not only to create and save jobs in the short-term […] but to lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity that will put opportunity within the reach of not just African Americans, but all Americans. All Americans. Of every race. Of every creed. From every region of the country. We want everybody to participate in the American Dream[10].

Les contraintes rhétoriques propres aux discours présidentiels

Comme l’a rappelé l’historienne Vanessa Beasley en 2004, les présidents ne disposent pas de ressources rhétoriques infinies :

Rather than being viewed as an unlimited, renewable resource speakers can use to get things done, rhetoric is, from this perspective, an ancient map, somehow always and already present, revealing the paths of past users, paths that are dug deep enough to limit future travelers’ options[11].

La « règle du précédent » s’applique notamment aux discours inauguraux et aux discours sur l’état de l’Union. Dans ces « discours obligatoires »[12], les présidents font souvent référence à leurs prédécesseurs (y compris lorsqu’ils sont issus du parti adverse) afin de placer leur action dans une continuité historique et de montrer que leurs valeurs correspondent à celles de la nation tout entière. C’est ainsi qu’en 1972, le républicain Richard Nixon a rendu hommage à l’ancien président démocrate Harry Truman dans son discours sur l’état de l’Union :

As all of you are aware, I had some differences with President Truman. He had some with me. But I remember that on that day – the day he addressed that joint session of the newly elected Republican 80th Congress, he spoke not as a partisan, but as President of all the people – calling upon the Congress to put aside partisan considerations in the national interest[13].

Dès lors, on comprend mieux que l’usage de certaines formules comme « Manifest Destiny » au dix-neuvième siècle, « Melting Pot » au début du vingtième et « American dream » depuis 1937 ait pu faire boule de neige dans les discours présidentiels.

Une attirance de plus en plus marquée pour l’abstraction chez les présidents

Sur la base d’une étude statistique précise de l’ensemble des discours d’investiture et des discours annuels sur l’état de l’Union prononcés par les présidents depuis George Washington, le politologue Elvin Lim a fait en 2002 le constat suivant : depuis l’avènement de la « présidence moderne » au début du vingtième siècle, la rhétorique présidentielle est devenue de plus en plus anti-intellectuelle, abstraite, assertive, démocratique et conversationnelle[14]. Les successeurs de Theodore Roosevelt ont ainsi tendance à éviter les références aux processus cognitifs et évaluatifs (les occurrences des verbes tels que « penser » et « juger » ont fortement décru depuis les années 1910), à taire leurs doutes et à exhiber leur confiance en l’avenir (on en voudra pour preuve l’augmentation des références au « renouveau » depuis Woodrow Wilson ou l’usage de plus en plus répandu de termes comme « objectif » et « réforme »). Ils négligent par ailleurs les connecteurs logiques caractéristiques du discours argumentatif (« mais », « par conséquent », « cependant ») et tendent à abandonner le registre soutenu pour un registre plus familier. Là où William Henry Harrison comparait la liberté à un « baume souverain pour toutes les blessures infligées à nos institutions » dans son discours d’investiture, George H.W. Bush a préféré recourir à une image plus prosaïque en 1989, celle du cerf-volant : « Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze »[15]. Clairement, les présidents du vingtième siècle ont assimilé le principe d’Aristote selon lequel « [l]a fonction de la rhétorique est de traiter des sujets dont nous devons délibérer et sur lesquels nous ne possédons point de techniques, devant des auditeurs qui n’ont pas la faculté d’inférer par de nombreux degrés et de suivre un raisonnement depuis un point éloigné »[16].

Curieusement, il semble que l’anti-intellectualisme de la rhétorique présidentielle moderne s’accompagne d’un certain penchant pour l’abstraction. Selon Lim, les invocations à Dieu ont considérablement augmenté au vingtième siècle (particulièrement durant les années Reagan) tandis que l’usage des mots « liberté », « bonheur » et « égalité » s’est généralisé depuis Theodore Roosevelt. Fait révélateur de l’ampleur de la transformation qui s’est opérée : les références aux idéaux fondateurs de la nation américaine se sont propagées jusque dans les messages annuels au Congrès, censément plus « terre-à-terre » que les discours d’investiture.

Les observations de Lim font écho aux analyses de Jeffrey Tulis aux États-Unis et de Luc Benoît à la Guillaume en France. Pour ces deux spécialistes de politique américaine, il est clair que la rhétorique présidentielle moderne est de plus en plus marquée par la démagogie au détriment de la négociation et de la recherche d’un consensus politique[17]. Ils constatent tous deux la disparition progressive du style oratoire délibératif (destiné à présenter un programme d’action concernant l’avenir et donc explicitement politique) au profit d’un style épidictique[18], en apparence apolitique, consensuel et cérémonial[19].

Pour qui prend au sérieux cette hypothèse d’une abstraction croissante de la rhétorique présidentielle américaine et d’une substitution progressive de l’épidictique au délibératif, l’augmentation des références au « rêve américain » dans les discours de l’exécutif n’a, là encore, rien d’étonnant.

Importance du rêve pour unifier une nation de plus en plus diverse

Le recours croissant des présidents au « rêve américain» dans leurs discours peut cependant être rattaché à des considérations plus pragmatiques. Les hommes politiques savent depuis longtemps qu’un discours abstrait et idéaliste, dans lequel l’orateur évite toute controverse, suscite plus facilement l’approbation de l’auditoire. C’est ce que le critique littéraire américain Wayne C. Booth a désigné en 1974 sous le terme de « rhétorique de l’assentiment »[20].

Par ailleurs, le concept de « rêve américain » permet aux présidents d’unifier rhétoriquement une nation américaine de plus en plus diverse et fragmentée. « Throughout America’s history, political candidates have typically aligned themselves with or the other versions of this myth in order to forge a unified national identity », notait justement Joanne Morreale en 1991[21]. Depuis les années 1970, l’augmentation spectaculaire des chiffres de l’immigration légale (+ 100 % entre 1970 et 2000) et illégale (le nombre d’immigrés clandestins serait passé de 8 à 12,5 millions entre 2000 et 2007, selon le bureau du recensement américain[22]) a rendu ce besoin d’unification encore plus pressant. La conclusion du discours prononcé par Bill Clinton devant le Congrès américain en 2000 (« As long as our dreams outweigh our memories America will be forever young. That is our destiny ») peut ainsi être lue comme un message adressé aux nouveaux arrivants : ce n’est qu’en oubliant leur passé et en adoptant les idéaux américains qu’ils parviendront à s’intégrer et qu’ils assureront la survie de leur patrie d’adoption[23]. Le « rêve américain », en incitant l’immigrant à regarder au-delà de sa condition individuelle et à prendre conscience de la communauté qu’il rejoint, permet de recréer le lien social et de préserver l’intégrité de la nation.

Importance du rêve pour redonner confiance à un électorat désabusé

Si le concept de « rêve américain » est de plus en plus présent dans la rhétorique présidentielle depuis les années 1960, c’est peut-être, enfin, parce que la perspective de voir ce rêve se réaliser s’éloigne, paradoxalement, pour une majorité de citoyens. Certes, les États-Unis se sont considérablement enrichis en termes globaux depuis les années 1970, mais cet enrichissement n’a pas profité à l’ensemble de la population. Les revenus du centile le plus riche ont augmenté de 176 % entre 1970 et 2000, là où le revenu médian des foyers américains n’a augmenté que de 21 %. Selon les économistes Heather Boushey et Christian E. Weller, c’est pendant la période 1979-1989 que les inégalités ont explosé aux États-Unis, quand les salaires des travailleurs les plus pauvres se sont mis à chuter brutalement tandis que ceux des travailleurs moyens demeuraient stables[24].

Parallèlement à l’accroissement des inégalités, la mobilité sociale a fortement décliné entre les années 1970 et les années 2000[25]. Or, c’est cette mobilité qui est au cœur du « rêve américain ». Ce dernier n’a jamais signifié une croyance dans l’égalité réelle, mais a toujours renvoyé à un idéal d’égalité des chances – la classe sociale dans laquelle un individu naissait ne devait pas déterminer son destin économique. La conclusion de Paul Krugman semble donc justifiée : « America looks more and more like a class-ridden society. […] Goodbye, Horatio Alger. And goodbye, American Dream »[26].

Comme Krugman, de plus en plus d’Américains doutent de la validité du « rêve américain ». Deux tiers des citoyens interrogés en 1995 estimaient que le rêve américain était plus difficile à réaliser à leur époque que dans les années 1970 et 1980[27]. Au début de l’année 2003, 50 % des Américains affirmaient que « le rêve américain [était] devenu impossible à atteindre »[28]. En 2006, ils étaient 54 % à le faire, conduisant un magazine à se poser la question : « Is the American Dream Still Possible? »[29].

Les présidents ne peuvent feindre d’ignorer ces interrogations. « For too many families, even when both parents were working, the American Dream has been slipping away », a ainsi admis Bill Clinton dans son second discours sur l’état de l’Union en 1994 ; « Some people aren’t sure that dream extends to them », a quant à lui regretté George W. Bush en 2002, tandis que Barack Obama est allé jusqu’à parler d’un « rêve américain à l’envers » en janvier 2009[30]. Pour autant, ils n’ont pas renoncé à faire du rêve un slogan de campagne. Pourquoi ?

Sans doute parce qu’en convoquant le rêve dans leurs discours, ils espèrent conjurer le sort. Ces dernières années, le rêve américain a ainsi survécu comme cliché généraliste dans les discours présidentiels chaque fois qu’il a été question de « relancer » la machine économique américaine. « Perhaps the most durable interest most voters have is the maintenance of the American dream’ itself; the promise of a better life, and particularly the promise of a better life for one’s children. […] Reagan promised above all that the American dream could be revitalized », notait ainsi Walter Dean Burnham en 1980 à propos de la campagne présidentielle de Reagan[31].

Des interprètes plus cyniques du fonctionnement de la politique discerneront dans ces références croissantes au « rêve américain » une volonté de masquer la réalité des inégalités économiques et sociales. La politologue Jennifer Hochschild décrit ainsi le « rêve américain » comme une « idéologie impressionnante » qui permet d’attirer des migrants du monde entier en rendant invisibles les conditions de vie réelles des Américains : « It can be used to club the poor into accepting their lot but it can also be used to make the rich squirm about their luxuries. It encourages people not even to see those aspects of society that make the dream impossible to fulfil for all the Americans »[32].

Une chose est sûre en tout cas : le « rêve américain » est devenu une ressource rhétorique indispensable pour les représentants de l’exécutif moderne depuis Roosevelt. Est-ce à dire que tous les présidents donnent à ce rêve le même contenu ?

De quel rêve parle-t-on ?

Un contenu global stable

Selon l’économiste Joseph Daleiden, l’expression « American dream » a été « employée dans des contextes si différents qu’elle ne peut être reliée à aucune signification précise »[1]. S’il est vrai que de multiples définitions du « rêve » existent, il semble néanmoins que le contenu du rêve puisse être ramené à trois ingrédients essentiels : la revendication de la mobilité sociale comme valeur fondamentale, l’espoir d’une vie confortable mais aussi d’un supplément d’âme et le sentiment d’appartenance à une nation à nulle autre pareille. Autrement dit, le « rêve américain » combinerait des valeurs que l’on se plaît d’ordinaire à opposer : égalité et liberté, matérialisme et spiritualité, exceptionnalisme et uniformité[2].

Les discours des présidents américains depuis Roosevelt illustrent bien ces tensions et ambiguïtés. Ils attribuent souvent au « rêve américain » un double contenu, tout à la fois matérialiste et moral, individuel et collectif. Ils encouragent les citoyens à travailler dur afin de s’élever dans l’échelle sociale et insistent sur les valeurs d’initiative, de persévérance et d’autonomie qui sont au cœur de l’éthique protestante du travail. « The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one – if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you », insistait ainsi Bill Clinton devant le Democratic Leadership Council en 1993[3]. Mais ils les exhortent également à se soucier de la communauté dans laquelle ils vivent et font référence à des valeurs telles que la tolérance, la charité, la compassion et le respect de la dignité humaine. Le discours prononcé par Barack Obama lors de la convention démocrate de 2004, alors qu’il n’était encore que sénateur de l’Illinois, illustre parfaitement cette idée : « It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. ‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one »[4].

Une autre idée apparaît immuable, presque intouchable, dans les discours de l’exécutif moderne : c’est le rêve américain qui aurait permis de construire les États-Unis. C’est notamment lui qui aurait attiré des millions d’immigrants. « Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free », a ainsi déclaré George H.W. Bush dans son discours sur l’état de l’Union de 1990[5]. C’est également lui qui aurait inspiré les principaux mouvements sociaux, politiques et religieux qui ont jalonné l’histoire américaine. On ne compte plus les références au « rêve des Puritains », au « rêve des Pères fondateurs », au « rêve des pionniers » ou au « rêve de Martin Luther King » dans les discours majeurs des présidents depuis Roosevelt :

Why did men come to that once forbidding land? There was a dream – a dream of a place where a free man could build for himself and raise his children to a better life – a dream of a continent to be conquered, a world to be won, a nation to be made. […] It existed when the first settlers saw the coast of a new world and when the first pioneers moved westward. It has guided us every step of the way[6].

Martin Luther King’s dream was the American Dream. His quest is our quest: the ceaseless striving to live out our true creed. Our history has been built on such dreams and labours[7].

D’un seul coup, généralement vers la fin de ces discours, la thématique du rêve apparaît, comme si la chose allait de soi, comme si elle constituait un fond de perspective indépassable et qu’on pouvait lui attribuer des vertus explicatives pour l’ensemble de l’histoire commencée à Jamestown en 1607.

Parallèlement cependant, les présidents continuent de présenter le rêve américain comme un idéal jamais totalement réalisé, un projet constamment à (re)construire. « Shall we pause now and turn back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For ‘each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth’ », se demandait ainsi Franklin Roosevelt en 1937 dans son deuxième discours inaugural[8].

Tout se passe donc comme si, dans la bouche des présidents, le rêve pouvait résumer le passé, le présent et l’avenir des États-Unis, comme s’il pouvait échapper à la contingence, être transhistorique. Le mélange des temps (passé, présent, futur) dans les extraits reproduits ci-dessous exprime bien cette pérennité du rêve :

This nation, this idea called America, was always and always will be a new world – our new world[9].

Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate. But the themes of this day he would know: our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity[10].

Mais des différences non négligeables

Si le contenu global du rêve semble immuable dans les discours de l’exécutif depuis 1937, chaque président apporte néanmoins sa touche personnelle. Chez Lyndon Johnson, par exemple, le rêve est devenu synonyme d’activisme en faveur de l’égalité politique et économique des citoyens américains. Pour le 36e président, rêver, c’était déjà agir. Et lorsqu’il a rappelé à ses concitoyens le contenu des rêves de son prédécesseur dans la première section du discours sur l’état de l’Union qu’il a prononcé le 27 novembre 1963, il a simultanément exposé son programme d’action pour les années à venir :

The dream of conquering the vastness of space – the dream of partnership across the Atlantic – and across the Pacific as well-the dream of a Peace Corps in less developed nations – the dream of education for all of our children – the dream of jobs for all who seek them and need them – the dream of care for our elderly – the dream of an all-out attack on mental illness – and above all, the dream of equal rights for all Americans, whatever their race or color – these and other American dreams have been vitalized by his drive and by his dedication. And now the ideas and the ideals which he so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action[11].

Jimmy Carter, lui, a proposé une vision beaucoup plus modeste du rêve dans son discours inaugural de 1977. Loin de promettre une ère de changement et de progrès social, il a appelé les Américains à se contenter de leurs vieux idéaux et à reconnaître les limites de ce que les États-Unis pouvaient accomplir : « The bold and brilliant dream which excited the founders of our nation still awaits consummation. I have no new dream to set forth today, but rather urge a fresh faith in the old dream »[12]. Beaucoup de commentateurs se sont étonnés de cette alliance entre « rhétorique du rêve » et « rhétorique de la stagnation », si peu commune chez les présidents. De fait, le discours de Carter a été assez mal perçu par l’opinion publique[13].

L’arrivée de Reagan au pouvoir en 1980 a sonné l’heure de la réconciliation entre « rêve américain » et ambition. Pour le 39e président, tout citoyen américain était un héros potentiel et le rêve était accessible à tous ceux qui se donnaient les moyens de réussir :

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. […] Now, I have used the words « they » and « their » in speaking of these heroes. I could say « you » and « your » because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak – you, the citizens of this blessed land[14].

Afin d’en convaincre le peuple américain, Reagan n’a cessé de parsemer ses discours de récits modelés sur ceux d’Horatio Alger. Ainsi, il a fait en 1985 l’éloge du sergent Jean Nguyen, immigrée vietnamienne qui avait choisi de servir son pays d’adoption en rejoignant l’académie militaire de West Point :

Ten years ago a young girl left Vietnam with her family, part of the exodus that followed the fall of Saigon. They came to the United States with no possessions and not knowing a word of English. Ten years ago – the young girl studied hard, learned English, and finished high school in the top of her class. And this May, May 22nd to be exact, is a big date on her calendar. Just ten years from the time she left Vietnam, she will graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. I thought you might like to meet an American hero named Jean Nguyen[15].

Ailleurs, il a célébré les vertus de l’entrepreneur qui, parti de rien, contribue à relancer la machine économique et à préserver la bonne santé morale de la nation:

They are the entrepreneurs, the builders, the pioneers, and a lot of regular folks – the true heroes of our land who make up the most uncommon nation of doers in history. You know they’re Americans because their spirit is as big as the universe and their hearts are bigger than their spirits[16].

La référence à ces « héros ordinaires » (ou, pour reprendre une expression du politologue Craig Smith, « extraordinairement ordinaires »[17]) était censée suffire à démontrer l’existence du rêve.

L’insistance du président sur l’actualisation du rêve à différentes époques, y compris dans les années 1980, n’était pas innocente. Il s’agissait pour Reagan d’envoyer un message politique clair : les Américains n’avaient pas besoin du gouvernement pour atteindre leurs objectifs. L’intervention du gouvernement dans l’économie risquait même d’entraver la mobilité sociale en remplaçant l’égalité des chances qui était au cœur du concept de « rêve américain » par une égalité de fait. Ce n’est qu’en se concentrant sur les valeurs individuelles (la foi, la famille et le travail) que la nation américaine pourrait progresser. Ainsi, le concept de « rêve américain » s’est trouvé chez Reagan mis au service d’un programme économique visant à substituer au paradigme traditionnel keynésien un nouveau paradigme basé sur la dérégulation et la déréglementation. Lorsqu’il a quitté la Maison-Blanche, le 39e président s’est éloigné de cette vision « néo-libérale », rappelant la nécessité de l’intervention étatique dans l’économie pour créer les conditions du progrès social[18]. Il n’empêche que ses discours ont permis l’émergence d’une nouvelle conception du « rêve américain », à la fois plus individualiste et matérialiste. Cette redéfinition du concept a profondément modifié le paysage politique américain de la fin du vingtième siècle.

Ce n’est pas la moindre réussite de Bill Clinton que d’avoir (momentanément) brisé cette association entre « rêve américain » et néo-libéralisme. Dans le discours qu’il a prononcé lors de la Convention nationale démocrate en juillet 1992, il a souligné le besoin d’associer de nouveau responsabilité individuelle et responsabilité collective au sein d’une « nouvelle alliance » (New Covenant)[19]. Après avoir rappelé qu’au centre du concept de « rêve américain » se situait l’idée selon laquelle « tout travail mérite récompense » (« the American dream was built on rewarding hard work »), il a ajouté « We can do better », comme pour indiquer que la communauté ne faisait pas assez pour aider ceux qui travaillaient dur à réaliser leur rêve. Plus loin, dans une longue section consacrée aux problèmes négligés par son concurrent républicain durant son mandat, il s’est emparé d’une célèbre réplique d’Abraham Lincoln au général McClellan (« If you’re not going to use your army, may I borrow it? »)pour indiquer son intention de mettre le pouvoir de l’exécutif (et, plus largement, de l’État) au service de tous les Américains : « George Bush, if you won’t use your power to help people, step aside, I will »[20]. Si la notion de responsabilité individuelle n’a pas complètement disparu du discours (Clinton y a fait allusion plus loin afin de préparer l’électorat à la nécessaire réforme de l’aide sociale), la version clintonienne du « rêve américain » a néanmoins accordé plus d’importance à la responsabilité collective. « We need a new government for a new century, humble enough not to try to solve all our problems but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves », a d’ailleurs répété le 41e président dans son second discours inaugural[21].

En juillet 2004, Barack Obama a repris le flambeau de Bill Clinton, insistant lui aussi sur la double dimension, individuelle et communautaire, du « rêve américain » dans son discours de soutien à John Kerry[22]. Après avoir décrit les États-Unis comme un « lieu magique », un « modèle de liberté et d’opportunité » et rappelé que sa propre ascension n’aurait pas pu avoir lieu dans un autre pays (« In no other country on earth is my story even possible »), le sénateur de l’Illinois a insisté sur le fait que le succès ne dépendait pas que de qualités individuelles mais également du dégré de solidarité d’une société : « Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are connected as one people »[23]. Plus loin, il a insisté sur le caractère inachevé du « projet américain » tel qu’il se présentait en 2004, évoquant d’abord le sort de ces travailleurs qui, suite à la délocalisation de leur entreprise au Mexique, « devaient concurrencer leurs propres enfants sur des emplois rémunérés sept dollars de l’heure », puis celui de ce père qui, ayant perdu son travail, ne pouvait plus payer les médicaments dont son fils avait besoin. Il a relié ces deux anecdotes au moyen de l’expression : « We have more work to do ». Que désignait ce « we » ? La fin du paragraphe a montré qu’il s’agissait de l’État fédéral. « [Americans] sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better », a assuré le futur candidat à l’élection présidentielle[24]. Derrière la critique de la politique économique de l’administration Bush s’est profilé ici un autre message : le « rêve américain » ne peut être réalisé qu’avec la collaboration d’un État efficace et généreux. Au « rêve individualiste » de Reagan, centré sur des figures héroïques, Obama a opposé le « rêve communautaire » élargi à la nation toute entière. Durant la campagne présidentielle de 2008, c’est le mot « espoir » qui en est venu à résumer ce rêve collectif. En entrelaçant de la sorte les notions de responsabilité individuelle et de responsabilité collective, Barack Obama a donc permis au Parti démocrate de réutiliser l’expression « rêve américain » sans renier les grands principes qui le guident depuis les années 1930[25].

Derrière l’épidictique, le délibératif

Ce que ce bref parcours fait apparaître, c’est que les références au rêve ne sont jamais neutres dans les discours présidentiels. Alors qu’elles semblent relever de l’épidictique, du consensuel, de la « religion civile américaine »[26], on s’aperçoit finalement qu’elles sont chargées idéologiquement et qu’elles relèvent par conséquent du délibératif. Chez Johnson, l’évocation du « vieux rêve » a ainsi servi à lancer un programme ambitieux de « Grande société » fondé sur l’intervention de l’État fédéral. Chez George W. Bush, elle a été mise au service de la promotion d’une politique de lutte contre la pauvreté fondée, non plus sur l’État-providence, mais au contraire sur l’action caritative, les fameuses « faith-based and community initiatives » chères aux Républicains conservateurs. Ainsi, par-delà son apparence constatative, l’expression « American dream » se révèle posséder un rôle performatif de création des valeurs. On pourrait en cela la rapprocher d’autres formules plus anciennes comme celles de « Manifest destiny » et de « Melting pot », par exemple.

Globalement, il semble que les présidents démocrates aient tendance à souligner les limites du rêve, son caractère jamais entièrement accompli. Ainsi, le second discours d’investiture de FDR en 1937 a repris en l’adaptant aux années 1930 la rhétorique du Pilgrim’s Progress de John Bunyan : l’homme liberal progresse vers la Cité céleste américaine, c’est-à-dire le welfare state, en évitant les embûches et en repoussant les tentations. Quant au discours d’investiture de Lyndon B. Johnson en 1965, il a adapté à l’Amérique des années 1960 la vieille rhétorique puritaine du covenant. Les présidents républicains tendent, eux, à préconiser un retour aux recettes du passé. Pour eux, le rêve est un acquis que seule l’intervention de l’État dans le domaine économique pourrait mettre en danger. Tout Américain, dès lors qu’il s’y emploie avec suffisamment de détermination et de discipline, peut atteindre le confort matériel et spirituel.

Ainsi, le concept de « rêve américain » fait l’objet d’une lutte constante entre démocrates et républicains, tous deux désireux de se l’approprier afin de rassembler les Américains autour de leur projet politique[27]. Ce qui est en jeu dans cette lutte, ce n’est rien de moins que l’avenir de l’Amérique.

Le « rêve américain » au service de la présidence

On vient de voir que les références au « rêve américain » dans les discours présidentiels ne visaient pas simplement à rassembler le peuple américain mais servaient également à promouvoir un programme politique précis. Cet aspect, aussi important soit-il, ne doit pas faire oublier un troisième usage du « rêve », qui est de renforcer la fonction présidentielle elle-même.

Un rêve dont le président est le héros

Depuis les années 1960, et de manière encore plus marquée depuis les années 1980, les présidents n’hésitent plus à se présenter comme l’incarnation la plus aboutie de l’American dream. Le caractère à la fois individuel et collectif de leur fonction (ils sont les seuls détenteurs du pouvoir exécutif, mais ils représentent l’ensemble du peuple américain) favorise indubitablement cette association.

En 1992, lorsque le service postal des États-Unis (U.S. Postal Service) a proposé à Gerald Ford de parrainer sa collection de timbres « American dream », destinée à fêter le 500e anniversaire du débarquement de Christophe Colomb en Amérique, le successeur de Nixon a ainsi tenu à rappeler combien la fonction présidentielle incarnait à merveille les promesses du « rêve américain » :

« As President, I had a rare opportunity to discover the American Dream in a way that might never have been open to me otherwise. […] I invite you to celebrate with me both Columbus’s dream of a new world and your and my American Dream as well. The connection, I believe, is most appropriate »[1].

La même année, Bill Clinton a fait de son ascension depuis la petite ville de Hope, dans l’Arkansas, jusqu’aux portes de la Maison-Blanche l’emblème du succès « à l’américaine ». « When I think about opportunity for all Americans, I think about my grandfather. He ran a country store in our little town of Hope. […] My fellow Americans, I end tonight where it all began for me – I still believe in a place called Hope », a-t-il déclaré lors de la convention nationale du Parti démocrate le 16 juillet[2]. Les spots télévisés crées par Harry Thomason et Linda Bloodworth-Thomason pour la campagne présidentielle de 1992 ont bien souligné cet arc narratif typique des histoire d’Horatio Alger. On y voit le candidat Clinton, rebaptisé pour l’occasion « The Man from Hope », évoquer son enfance modeste, sa rencontre avec John Kennedy en 1963 (« I remember just thinking what an incredible country this was, if somebody like me would be given the opportunity to meet the president ») puis le travail qu’il accompli en tant que sénateur de l’Arkansas[3]. Là encore, l’accession à la Maison-Blanche est présentée comme le couronnement ultime d’une carrière, la concrétisation parfaite du « rêve américain »[4].

George W. Bush a tenté de faire revivre la promesse de mobilité sociale qui animait la rhétorique de son prédécesseur en escamotant ses origines privilégiées (son statut de fils de président et de petit-fils de sénateur, en particulier) et en se présentant sous les traits d’un « cow-boy texan » au parcours semé d’embûches. Dans son allocution du 21 mai 2001 à l’université de Yale, il a ainsi insisté sur sa propre médiocrité intellectuelle, expliquant qu’il avait passé de nombreuses heures à ronfler dans la bibliothèque universitaire[5]. Le paradoxe de ce discours, c’est qu’il mêle l’autocritique à la célébration. En évoquant sa paresse et son ignorance, Bush montre que tous les Américains, y compris ceux dont les aptitudes intellectuelles sont limitées, peuvent devenir président : « And to the C students I say: you too can be president of the United States »[6]. Et donc, que le rêve américain est une réalité.

Plus qu’aucun autre homme politique, Barack Obama s’est présenté comme l’incarnation du « rêve américain ». Dans son discours à la convention nationale démocrate de 2004, celui qui n’était encore que sénateur de l’Illinois a évoqué les « grand rêves » conçus par son grand-père paternel et que son père a réalisés en venant étudier dans un « endroit magique : l’Amérique »[7]. Un peu plus loin, il a souligné l’importance des valeurs de travail et d’effort pour son grand-père maternel en rappelant que celui-ci avait travaillé sur des plates-formes pétrolières et dans des exploitations agricoles avant de s’engager volontairement dans l’armée du général Patton au moment de l’attaque de Pearl Harbor. Dans le quatrième paragraphe de son discours, il a explicitement fait le lien entre son histoire personnelle et le destin de la nation américaine lorsqu’il a déclaré : « [M]y story is part of the larger American story »[8].

À première vue, les discours de Ronald Reagan semblent s’être moins appesantis sur l’héroïsme du détenteur du pouvoir exécutif que ceux d’Obama, Clinton, Bush Jr. et Ford. Le 39e président n’a-t-il pas fait l’éloge des « Américains ordinaires » dans son second discours d’investiture (« the quiet everyday heroes of American life ») ?[9] Mais, à bien y regarder, les figures qui s’y trouvent célébrées sont toujours, soit des héros militaires comme Jean Nguyen ou Jeremiah Denton (ex-prisonnier de guerre devenu sénateur républicain de l’Alabama), soit des entrepreneurs comme Carlos Perez (réfugié cubain qui a créé sa propre entreprise d’import-export avec 27 dollars en poche) ou Barbara Proctor (directrice d’une grande agence de publicité née dans un quartier pauvre de Chicago), soit des artistes comme Michael Jackson ou James Cagney. Pourquoi ? Sans doute parce que ces personnages ont permis à Reagan de célébrer les principes qui le guidaient lui-même en tant que président : patriotisme, capitalisme et populisme. Derrière Denton, Perez et les autres, il faut voir l’ancien acteur, divorcé, malheureux, qui a pris en main son destin et décidé de se lancer dans la politique afin de faire triompher les valeurs du Parti républicain. Le vrai héros du « rêve reaganien », c’est ainsi le président lui-même.

Sans le président, pas de rêve ?

Pourquoi les présidents tiennent-ils absolument à présenter leur itinéraire comme l’incarnation parfaite du « rêve américain » ? D’abord, parce qu’un tel récit accrédite l’idée selon laquelle la mobilité sociale est toujours possible aux États-Unis et donc entretient la croyance dans le rêve. C’est ce qu’ont bien noté les politologues Robert C. Rowland et John M. Jones en 2007 :

The particular actions of the hero in stories enacting the American Dream […] provide a kind of rhetorical proof that commitment to the values inherent in the American Dream will lead to its achievement. The victory of the hero in the American Dream romance is proof of the validity of the American Dream itself[10].

Mais surtout, parce qu’il permet aux présidents de conforter leur statut d’interlocuteur privilégié de leurs concitoyens.

Depuis le début du vingtième siècle, la présidence n’a cessé d’accroître son poids au sein du système politique américain. Avec l’ascension des États-Unis comme puissance mondiale, elle a gagné de nouvelles responsabilités dans la gestion des affaires nationales. Elle s’est impliquée plus directement dans le travail des bureaucraties et des commissions du Congrès ; elle a sollicité directement le soutien de groupes sociaux particuliers. Avec l’émergence de nouveaux moyens de communication de masse, la mondialisation et l’intensification de la concurrence internationale dans les années 1970, l’institution a pris un tour moins pluraliste. La sélection des candidats à la présidence est passée des conventions des partis aux élections primaires centrées autour de la personne des candidats. Les présidents depuis Roosevelt cultivent une relation politique de plus en plus directe avec le public. Ils cherchent constamment à passer par-dessus la tête des élites de l’establishment washingtonien, dans l’espoir que leur stature publique contraindra celles-ci à suivre leur leadership.

Ce tournant plébiscitaire, bien décrit par Richard Neustadt, Barbara Hinckley et Stephen Skowronek[11], est facilement attesté par une étude comparée des discours d’investiture et des « messages annuels au Congrès » prononcés par les présidents au XIXe  et au XXe siècles. Tandis qu’au moment de son entrée en fonction, Martin Van Buren exprimait sa peur de « ne pas s’acquitter de manière adéquate d’une charge si difficile »[12] et que Franklin Pierce se lamentait de n’être pas « né pour assumer une fonction que d’autres étaient mieux à mêmes d’exercer »[13], Franklin Roosevelt a annoncé sur un ton triomphant qu’il était prêt à « assumer […] la direction de cette grande armée, le peuple américain »[14] et Bill Clinton a déclaré, non sans une certaine dose de mauvaise foi, que son élection traduisait une approbation indubitable de son programme de campagne : « You have raised your voices in an unmistakable chorus »[15]. De manière générale, les références au pouvoir législatif (« Sénat », « Chambre des représentants ») et au pouvoir judiciaire (« Cour Suprême », « Constitution ») ont été supplantées par les références au pouvoir exécutif et au peuple américain depuis les années 1930[16]. Les présidents modernes sont de plus en plus enclins à se présenter comme les uniques porte-paroles de la volonté populaire et à minimiser le pluralisme du système gouvernemental américain.

Ce statut de porte-parole n’est pas incontesté. En plus des contraintes institutionnelles qui pèsent sur sa fonction, le président moderne fait l’objet de pressions constantes de la part d’autres acteurs du jeu politique tels que l’opinion publique, les groupes d’intérêt et les médias. Dans ce contexte, il a tout intérêt à faire appel aux mythes fondateurs de la nation américaine pour renforcer sa position. En se décrivant comme l’unique dépositaire des rêves de ses concitoyens, le chef de l’exécutif peut prendre l’avantage sur le plan rhétorique et, éventuellement, sur le plan électoral. L’équation « présidence = personnification du rêve américain » a, de ce fait, tendance à devenir « sans président = pas de rêve américain » dans la rhétorique présidentielle moderne. En 1933, Roosevelt s’est ainsi présenté comme l’unique rempart contre la crise économique et les « money changers » dans son discours d’investiture :

The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. […] The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it[17].

Ronald Reagan s’est exprimé en des termes similaires en 1981 :

Now, I have used the words « they » and « their » in speaking of these heroes. I could say « you » and « your, » because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak – you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. […] Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic « yes. » To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy[18].

En 2009, Barack Obama a lui aussi tenu à rappeler qu’il était le seul gardien des aspirations de ses concitoyens lors du sommet du G-20 à Londres :

I’m not the President of China, I’m not the President of Japan, I’m not the President of the other participants here. And so I have a direct responsibility to my constituents to make their lives better. That’s why they put me in there. That accounts for some of the questions here, about how concretely does me being here help them find a job, pay for their home, send their kids to college, live what we call the American Dream. And I will be judged by my effectiveness in meeting their needs and concerns[19].

On le voit ici, la référence au rêve américain dans la rhétorique présidentielle n’a pas pour seuls objectifs d’unifier la nation américaine et de soutenir un programme politique partisan : elle sert également à conforter l’avantage de l’exécutif au sein du système politique américain en donnant du président l’image d’un homme prêt à tout pour que ses concitoyens prospèrent économiquement et moralement. Dans tous les cas, elle apparaît comme une ressource rhétorique et politique indispensable pour une institution qui, depuis Roosevelt, semble en quête permanente de crédibilité.

Conclusion

Partis d’une simple étude statistique des occurrences de l’expression « American dream » dans les discours présidentiels depuis les années 1930, nous avons pu constater à quel point la popularité du concept s’était accrue au cours des XXe et XXIe siècles (Barack Obama l’utilise aujourd’hui au rythme de deux fois par semaine environ). Cinq grandes raisons ont été avancées pour expliquer ce succès grandissant : l’influence de la prose de James Truslow Adams et de Martin Luther King sur la rhétorique présidentielle moderne ; les contraintes rhétoriques propres aux discours présidentiels, qui poussent le chef de l’exécutif à reprendre des formules héritées de ses prédecesseurs afin de renforcer sa légitimité ; une propension de plus en plus marquée à l’abstraction rhétorique à la recherche du consensus, qui se traduit par l’émergence d’un style épidictique ; la nécessité d’unifier une nation de plus en plus diverse du fait de l’immigration ; le besoin, enfin, de redonner confiance à une population consciente du renforcement des inégalités sociales et économiques depuis les années 1970.

Dans la seconde partie de l’article, nous nous sommes attachés à décrire de manière plus détaillée le contenu du rêve tel qu’évoqué par les présidents américains depuis Roosevelt. Nous avons alors observé qu’en dépit de son apparente neutralité idéologique, le concept masquait des tensions fortes entre liberté et égalité, entre individualisme et collectivisme, entre matérialisme et moralisme. Tandis que Richard Nixon et Ronald Reagan ont insisté sur son aspect matériel et individuel, Lyndon Johnson et Bill Clinton ont plutôt mis en avant sa dimension égalitaire et collective, par exemple. Ces observations nous ont conduits à émettre l’hypothèse d’un conflit entre deux grandes versions du rêve américain : une version démocrate et une version républicaine.

La distance qui sépare le « rêve démocrate » du « rêve républicain » ne doit cependant pas être exagérée. Dans la troisième et dernière partie de ce texte, nous avons montré que la référence présidentielle à l’« American dream », plus qu’un moyen de réaffirmer l’identité partisane du chef de l’exécutif, constituait avant tout un moyen de séduire le peuple américain et, partant, d’accentuer l’avantage politique du président au sein d’un système gouvernemental devenu de plus en plus complexe et compétitif. Il faut donc relier l’histoire des usages présidentiels du « rêve américain » à l’histoire de l’institution elle-même, et notamment au tournant plebiscitaire qui la marque depuis les années 1960. Derrière la rhétorique, il y a, encore et toujours, la politique.

Notes

[1] « The American Dream: The People, the Hope, the Glory, 1492-1992 », United States Postal Brochure, 1992. Cité dans Jennifer L. HOCHSCHILD, Facing Up to the American Dream, p. xxii.

[2] William J. CLINTON, « Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York », 16 juillet 1992.

[3] Ces clips de campagne peuvent être visionnés sur Internet à l’adresse suivante : http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1992/journey

[4] Clinton reviendra de nouveau sur la valeur exemplaire de son parcours en 2001 : « I believe in the American Dream. I have lived it. Where else could an ordinary boy from Hope, Arkansas, grow up to become President? […] During the eight years I was privileged to serve as President of the United States, I thought about the American Dream every day ». Bill CLINTON, « Preface », in Andreas BLUHM et Stephen L. WHITE (dir.), The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 2001.

[5] George W. BUSH, « Commencement Address at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut », 21 mai 2001. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=45895&st=yale&st1=

[6] Idem.

[7] Barack OBAMA, « 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address », 27 juillet 2004.

[8] Idem.

[9] Ronald REAGAN, « Second Inaugural Address », 20 janvier 1985.

[10] Robert C. ROWLAND et John M. Jones, « Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama’s Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention », p. 431.

[11] Richard NEUSTADT, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership, New York, Wiley, 1960 ; Barbara HINCKLEY, The Symbolic Presidency: How Presidents Portray Themselves, New York, Routledge, 1990 ; Stephen SKOWRONECK, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Boston, MA, Harvard University Press, 1997.

[12] « If such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country’s confidence, and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance! ». Martin VAN BUREN, « Inaugural Address », 4 mars 1837. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25812

[13] « It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself ». Franklin PIERCE, « Inaugural Address », 4 mars 1853. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25816

[14] « With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems ». Franklin ROOSEVELT, « Inaugural Address », 4 mars 1933. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=14473

[15] William Jefferson CLINTON, « Inaugural Address », 20 janvier 1993. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=46366

[16] Elvin LIM, art. cit., pp. 339-341.

[17] Franklin ROOSEVELT, « Inaugural Address », 4 mars 1933.

[18] Ronald REAGAN, « Inaugural Address », 20 janvier 1981.

[19] Barack OBAMA, « The President’s News Conference in London, England », 2 avril 2009. Source : John T. WOOLEY et Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, Santa Barbara, CA. Disponible à l’adresse suivante : http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=85947&st=london&st1=obama

Voir aussi :

With more and more middle-income Americans feeling the pinch…

Is the American Dream Still Possible?

David Wallechinsky

Parade

April 23, 2006

To be “middle class” in America once meant living well and having financial security. But today that comfortable and contented lifestyle is harder to achieve and maintain. PARADE commissioned Mark Clements Research Inc. to survey Americans nationwide about their finances and outlook for the future. Contributing Editor David Wallechinsky—author of recent articles on where your tax dollars go and on pork-barrel spending—interprets the results.

The traditional American Dream is based on the belief that hardworking citizens can better their lives, pay their monthly bills without worry, give their children a start to an even better life and still save enough to live comfortably after they retire. But many average Americans are struggling—squeezed by rising costs, declining wages, credit-card debt and diminished benefits, with little left over to save for retirement. (See statistics below.)

Does the dream survive? Do most Americans still believe they can forge better lives for themselves?

PARADE surveyed more than 2,200 Americans, of whom fully 84% described themselves as belonging to the middle class, regardless of where they live (living costs are higher in some regions) or the size of their household.

For this report, we focused on U.S. households earning between $30,000 and $99,000 a year. Most of those surveyed describe themselves as married and having a family. More than 64% say they are employed full-time or part-time. Most say they are in reasonably good health and have a satisfying religious or spiritual life. They own a home and at least two cars, and they are able to take vacations. By international standards, they live a life of prosperity.

Yet behind this prosperity is a growing unease. Half of the employed respondents say that they’ve experienced either increased health-care costs or a cut in health benefits over the last three years, and 39% have had cuts in their overtime, raises or bonuses. Almost two-thirds say they live from paycheck to paycheck, and 47% say that no matter how hard they work, they cannot get ahead. More than a third worry about job loss.

Richard Oden of Conyers, Ga.—married, with five children—worked in the beer industry for 23 years. Last year, he developed pneumonia and required major surgery. When he was unable to return to work by a given date, he says, his company terminated him at age 54—even though he had a perfect attendance record and no performance problems.

To help support his family, Oden had to dip into his 401(k) fund, paying a penalty for premature withdrawal. “This was very stressful,” he says. “Everything had gone up—except wages.”

Oden has since started his own business, a “leadership and personal development” consulting firm. His wife, Josett, works as a representative in the health-care field. “I do believe I will recover financially,” Oden says, “and that I will realize a decent retirement. But the traditional American Dream? For most Americans, it’s still a dream—a pipe dream.”

Having drawn on his own retirement fund, Oden knows that saving can be a big problem. In the survey, nearly 83% say that there is not much left to save after they’ve paid their bills. Statistics from the Commerce Department bear this out: The savings rate for Americans is the lowest it has been in 73 years.

Self-reliance and sacrifice. Most of those interviewed display qualities common to American success stories: determination, flexibility, pragmatism, willingness to work hard and especially self-reliance. Almost three-quarters of the middle-class respondents surveyed say they take responsibility for their own financial destiny and believe that they will succeed or fail based on their own efforts. Still, many are downsizing their dreams.

Shelly Comer, 43, of Dos Palos, Calif., is a divorced mother of three who also takes care of a friend of her oldest child, Michelle. She is going into debt so that Michelle can go to college. Shelly has worked her whole life—as a receptionist, janitor, preschool teacher and activities director at a hospital. Recently, she became a registered nurse and now works the night shift in obstetrics at another hospital. Her annual income is $70,377.

Michelle, 19, is a freshman at the University of California at Merced. She says she is concerned about the financial burden her education is placing on her family: “In order to meet our expected family contribution, my mother had to borrow the entire amount of her share.” For her part, Michelle earned six small scholarships, two of which are renewable for next year, and took out a federal loan. She also works 16 hours a week in the financial-aid office at the university.

Shelly has a retirement plan through the hospital. “But I have nothing saved for me,” she says. “I’m putting it all into the kids, so that they can succeed in school. Our parents did everything for us, and I hope to do the same for my kids. I don’t count on anyone else to help us get to where we want to go. It’s all up to me and my family. And I trust in God to help us.”

Who is responsible? One of the most intriguing results of the Parade survey is that 89% of the middle class believes that businesses have a social responsibility to their employees and to the community. Yet 81% believe that, in fact, American businesses make decisions based on what is best for their shareholders and investors, not what’s best for their employees.

Randy Omark, 55, and Cherie Morris, 58, of Stroudsburg, Pa., husband and wife, are former flight attendants for TWA. Cherie took a buyout in the late 1990s—before American Airlines bought TWA in 2001. After the acquisition, Randy was put on “furlough” (as were about 4,000 other former TWA flight attendants) and never rehired. After 26 years with the two airlines, his pension was frozen and then taken over by the government. Now he gets $324 a month in payments.

Today, despite having a college education, Randy works for $9 an hour finding community jobs for mentally challenged adults. Cherie works for a greeting-card company for $7.25 an hour.

“It used to be that if you stayed with your job, you would be rewarded,” says Cherie. “Now there is no guarantee.” As for retirement, Randy says, “Eventually, we will just downsize everything, sell our house and move into a smaller one.”

Is the dream changing? Simone Luevano, 46, and Miguel Gutierrez, 44, run a garage-door installation and repair business in Albuquerque, N.M. While the business grossed $453,000 last year, they took home just $50,000 net to live on. They have a daughter—Marilyn, age 7—who is deaf in one ear and goes to a private school that costs $3600 a year.

Simone says that financial stress is part of their lives: “It comes from the ‘maybe, could be, should be’ nature of our business.” When the economy is down, people don’t buy a new garage-door system. The cost of gas at the pump is a major factor, she adds: “When the price of gasoline goes down, business goes up.”

Have they prepared for retirement? Simone laughs, then replies, “The words ‘retirement’ and ‘vacation’ are not in our vocabulary. You know that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song: ‘I owe my soul to the company store’? We don’t think about retirement. They’ll have to take me out of here with my high-top tennies on.

“The American Dream is a bygone thing,” she adds. “It’s not the way life is anymore. I used to believe I was responsible for my own destiny. But it’s not that simple. Now it’s faith and fortitude.”

The Stressed Middle Class

National statistics show the increasing pressures on middle-income Americans:

* The real median household income declined 3% from 2000 to 2004.

* The percentage of households earning $25,000 to $99,999 (roughly middle-income range) shrank 1.5% from 2000 to 2004.

* Last year, real average weekly earnings actually fell 0.4%.

* The savings rate for Americans is the lowest it has been in 73 years.

* Credit-card debt is at an all-time high, averaging $9,312 per household.

* The average cost per year of a public college (in state) is $12,127, a 25% increase since 2001.

* A private university costs $29,026.

Here’s What Americans Say

Our survey of middle-income Americans about their financial outlooks showed both skepticism and hope.

More than 52% of middle-class Americans think that they’re better off than their parents were, but…

56% think things will be worse for their own children or for future generations.

Nearly 57% say they believe that the middle class in America is decreasing.

51% of employed members of the middle class have experienced either increased health-care costs or a cut in health benefits, and 39% have experienced cuts in overtime, raises or bonuses.

66% say they tend to live from paycheck to paycheck.

47% say that no matter how hard they work, they cannot get ahead.

Nearly 83% say that there is not much money left to save after they have paid their bills.

89% of the respondents believe that businesses have a social responsibility to their employees and to the community, but…

81% believe that American businesses make decisions based on what is best for their shareholders and investors—not what is best for their employees.

74% of the middle class say they take responsibility for their own financial success or failure.

80% say they believe it is still possible to achieve the American Dream.

What Can You Do?

In this (and every) election year, many politicians rev up emotions that keep voters from focusing on the pocketbook and daily-life issues that truly matter. You know what really touches your family and life: The cost of milk, gas and prescription drugs. The quality of schools. The hope that the government will step in fully prepared to keep you safe and secure if a disaster hits your neighborhood.

Don’t leave decision-making and priority-setting to zealots who have an ax to grind—or to the blindly ambitious people who emerge in every generation. For more than 200 years, our system of government has encouraged power to the people. Be an active citizen.

Voir enfin:

The Way We Were

Rethinking the American Dream

Along with millions of jobs and 401(k)s, the concept of a shared national ideal is said to be dying. But is the American Dream really endangered, or has it simply been misplaced? Exploring the way our aspirations have changed—the rugged individualism of the Wild West, the social compact of F.D.R., the sitcom fantasy of 50s suburbia—the author shows how the American Dream came to mean fame and fortune, instead of the promise that shaped a nation.

David Kamp

Vanity Fair

April 2009

The year was 1930, a down one like this one. But for Moss Hart, it was the time for his particularly American moment of triumph. He had grown up poor in the outer boroughs of New York City—“the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose,” he said—and he’d vowed that if he ever made it big he would never again ride the rattling trains of the city’s dingy subway system. Now he was 25, and his first play, Once in a Lifetime, had just opened to raves on Broadway. And so, with three newspapers under his arm and a wee-hours celebration of a successful opening night behind him, he hailed a cab and took a long, leisurely sunrise ride back to the apartment in Brooklyn where he still lived with his parents and brother.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into one of the several drab tenement neighborhoods that preceded his own, Hart later recalled, “I stared through the taxi window at a pinch-faced 10-year-old hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, and I thought of myself hurrying down the street on so many gray mornings out of a doorway and a house much the same as this one.… It was possible in this wonderful city for that nameless little boy—for any of its millions—to have a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished. Wealth, rank, or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream.”

As the boy ducked into a tailor shop, Hart recognized that this narrative was not exclusive to his “wonderful city”—it was one that could happen anywhere in, and only in, America. “A surge of shamefaced patriotism overwhelmed me,” Hart wrote in his memoir, Act One. “I might have been watching a victory parade on a flag-draped Fifth Avenue instead of the mean streets of a city slum. A feeling of patriotism, however, is not always limited to the feverish emotions called forth by war. It can sometimes be felt as profoundly and perhaps more truly at a moment such as this.”

Hart, like so many before and after him, was overcome by the power of the American Dream. As a people, we Americans are unique in having such a thing, a more or less Official National Dream. (There is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or Slovakian Dream.) It is part of our charter—as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, in the famous bit about “certain unalienable Rights” that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—and it is what makes our country and our way of life attractive and magnetic to people in other lands.

But now fast-forward to the year 2009, the final Friday of January. The new president is surveying the dire economy he has been charged with righting—600,000 jobs lost in January alone, a gross domestic product that shrank 3.8 percent in the final quarter of 2008, the worst contraction in almost 30 years. Assessing these numbers, Barack Obama, a man who normally exudes hopefulness for a living, pronounces them a “continuing disaster for America’s working families,” a disaster that amounts to no less, he says, than “the American Dream in reverse.”

In reverse. Imagine this in terms of Hart’s life: out of the taxicab, back on the subway, back to the tenements, back to cramped cohabitation with Mom and Dad, back to gray mornings and the grim smell of actual want.

You probably don’t even have to imagine, for chances are that of late you have experienced some degree of reversal yourself, or at the very least have had friends or loved ones get laid off, lose their homes, or just find themselves forced to give up certain perks and amenities (restaurant meals, cable TV, salon haircuts) that were taken for granted as recently as a year ago.

These are tough times for the American Dream. As the safe routines of our lives have come undone, so has our characteristic optimism—not only our belief that the future is full of limitless possibility, but our faith that things will eventually return to normal, whatever “normal” was before the recession hit. There is even worry that the dream may be over—that we currently living Americans are the unfortunate ones who shall bear witness to that deflating moment in history when the promise of this country began to wither. This is the “sapping of confidence” that President Obama alluded to in his inaugural address, the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

But let’s face it: If Moss Hart, like so many others, was able to rally from the depths of the Great Depression, then surely the viability of the American Dream isn’t in question. What needs to change is our expectation of what the dream promises—and our understanding of what that vague and promiscuously used term, “the American Dream,” is really supposed to mean.

In recent years, the term has often been interpreted to mean “making it big” or “striking it rich.” (As the cult of Brian De Palma’s Scarface has grown, so, disturbingly, has the number of people with a literal, celebratory read on its tagline: “He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.”) Even when the phrase isn’t being used to describe the accumulation of great wealth, it’s frequently deployed to denote extreme success of some kind or other. Last year, I heard commentators say that Barack Obama achieved the American Dream by getting elected president, and that Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel achieved the American Dream by leading his team to its first World Series title since 1980.

Yet there was never any promise or intimation of extreme success in the book that popularized the term, The Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1931. (Yes, “the American Dream” is a surprisingly recent coinage; you’d think that these words would appear in the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but they don’t.) For a book that has made such a lasting contribution to our vocabulary, The Epic of America is an offbeat piece of work—a sweeping, essayistic, highly subjective survey of this country’s development from Columbus’s landfall onward, written by a respected but solemn historian whose prim prose style was mocked as “spinach” by the waggish theater critic Alexander Woollcott.

But it’s a smart, thoughtful treatise. Adams’s goal wasn’t so much to put together a proper history of the U.S. as to determine, by tracing his country’s path to prominence, what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American. (That he undertook such an enterprise when he did, in the same grim climate in which Hart wrote Once in a Lifetime, reinforces how indomitably strong Americans’ faith in their country remained during the Depression.) What Adams came up with was a construct he called “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”

From the get-go, Adams emphasized the egalitarian nature of this dream. It started to take shape, he said, with the Puritans who fled religious persecution in England and settled New England in the 17th century. “[Their] migration was not like so many earlier ones in history, led by warrior lords with followers dependent on them,” he wrote, “but was one in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and happiness for himself and his children.”

The Declaration of Independence took this concept even further, for it compelled the well-to-do upper classes to put the common man on an equal footing with them where human rights and self-governance were concerned—a nose-holding concession that Adams captured with exquisite comic passiveness in the sentence, “It had been found necessary to base the [Declaration’s] argument at last squarely on the rights of man.” Whereas the colonist upper classes were asserting their independence from the British Empire, “the lower classes were thinking not only of that,” Adams wrote, “but of their relations to their colonial legislatures and governing class.”

America was truly a new world, a place where one could live one’s life and pursue one’s goals unburdened by older societies’ prescribed ideas of class, caste, and social hierarchy. Adams was unreserved in his wonderment over this fact. Breaking from his formal tone, he shifted into first-person mode in The Epic of America’s epilogue, noting a French guest’s remark that his most striking impression of the United States was “the way that everyone of every sort looks you right in the eye, without a thought of inequality.” Adams also told a story of “a foreigner” he used to employ as an assistant, and how he and this foreigner fell into a habit of chitchatting for a bit after their day’s work was done. “Such a relationship was the great difference between America and his homeland,” Adams wrote. “There, he said, ‘I would do my work and might get a pleasant word, but I could never sit and talk like this. There is a difference there between social grades which cannot be got over. I would not talk to you there as man to man, but as my employer.’”

Anecdotal as these examples are, they get to the crux of the American Dream as Adams saw it: that life in the United States offered personal liberties and opportunities to a degree unmatched by any other country in history—a circumstance that remains true today, some ill-considered clampdowns in the name of Homeland Security notwithstanding. This invigorating sense of possibility, though it is too often taken for granted, is the great gift of Americanness. Even Adams underestimated it. Not above the prejudices of his time, he certainly never saw Barack Obama’s presidency coming. While he correctly anticipated the eventual assimilation of the millions of Eastern and Southern European immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century to work in America’s factories, mines, and sweatshops, he entertained no such hopes for black people. Or, as he rather injudiciously put it, “After a generation or two, [the white-ethnic laborers] can be absorbed, whereas the negro cannot.”

It’s also worth noting that Adams did not deny that there is a material component to the American Dream. The Epic of America offers several variations on Adams’s definition of the dream (e.g., “the American dream that life should be made richer and fuller for everyone and opportunity remain open to all”), but the word “richer” appears in all of them, and he wasn’t just talking about richness of experience. Yet Adams was careful not to overstate what the dream promises. In one of his final iterations of the “American Dream” trope, he described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

That last part—“according to his ability or achievement”—is the tempering phrase, a shrewd bit of expectations management. A “better and richer life” is promised, but for most people this won’t be a rich person’s life. “Opportunity for each” is promised, but within the bounds of each person’s ability; the reality is, some people will realize the American Dream more stupendously and significantly than others. (For example, while President Obama is correct in saying, “Only in America is my story possible,” this does not make it true that anyone in America can be the next Obama.) Nevertheless, the American Dream is within reach for all those who aspire to it and are willing to put in the hours; Adams was articulating it as an attainable outcome, not as a pipe dream.

As the phrase “the American Dream” insinuated its way into the lexicon, its meaning continuously morphed and shifted, reflecting the hopes and wants of the day. Adams, in The Epic of America, noted that one such major shift had already occurred in the republic’s history, before he’d given the dream its name. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that there was no longer such a thing as the American frontier. This was not an official pronouncement but an observation in the bureau’s report that “the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”

The tapering off of the frontier era put an end to the immature, individualistic, Wild West version of the American Dream, the one that had animated homesteaders, prospectors, wildcatters, and railroad men. “For a century and more,” Adams wrote, “our successive ‘Wests’ had dominated the thoughts of the poor, the restless, the discontented, the ambitious, as they had those of business expansionists and statesmen.”

But by the time Woodrow Wilson became president, in 1913—after the first national election in which every voter in the continental U.S. cast his ballot as a citizen of an established state—that vision had become passé. In fact, to hear the new president speak, the frontiersman’s version of the American Dream was borderline malevolent. Speaking in his inaugural address as if he had just attended a screening of There Will Be Blood, Wilson declared, “We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature, without which our genius for enterprise would have been worthless and impotent.” Referencing both the end of the frontier and the rapid industrialization that arose in its aftermath, Wilson said, “There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great.… We have come now to the sober second thought. The scales of heedlessness have fallen from our eyes. We have made up our minds to square every process of our national life again with the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning.”

The American Dream was maturing into a shared dream, a societal compact that reached its apotheosis when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1933 and began implementing the New Deal. A “better and richer and fuller” life was no longer just what America promised its hardworking citizens individually; it was an ideal toward which these citizens were duty-bound to strive together. The Social Security Act of 1935 put this theory into practice. It mandated that workers and their employers contribute, via payroll taxes, to federally administered trust funds that paid out benefits to retirees—thereby introducing the idea of a “safe old age” with built-in protection from penury.

This was, arguably, the first time that a specific material component was ascribed to the American Dream, in the form of a guarantee that you could retire at the age of 65 and rest assured that your fellow citizens had your back. On January 31, 1940, a hardy Vermonter named Ida May Fuller, a former legal secretary, became the very first retiree to receive a monthly Social Security benefit check, which totaled $22.54. As if to prove both the best hopes of Social Security’s proponents and the worst fears of its detractors, Fuller enjoyed a long retirement, collecting benefits all the way to her death in 1975, when she was 100 years old.

Still, the American Dream, in F.D.R.’s day, remained largely a set of deeply held ideals rather than a checklist of goals or entitlements. When Henry Luce published his famous essay “The American Century” in Life magazine in February 1941, he urged that the U.S. should no longer remain on the sidelines of World War II but use its might to promote this country’s “love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence, and also of cooperation.” Luce was essentially proposing that the American Dream—more or less as Adams had articulated it—serve as a global advertisement for our way of life, one to which non-democracies should be converted, whether by force or gentle coercion. (He was a missionary’s son.)

More soberly and less bombastically, Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union address, prepared America for war by articulating the “four essential human freedoms” that the U.S. would be fighting for: “freedom of speech and expression”; “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way”; “freedom from want”; and “freedom from fear.” Like Luce, Roosevelt was upholding the American way as a model for other nations to follow—he suffixed each of these freedoms with the phrase “everywhere in the world”—but he presented the four freedoms not as the lofty principles of a benevolent super race but as the homespun, bedrock values of a good, hardworking, unextravagant people.

No one grasped this better than Norman Rockwell, who, stirred to action by Roosevelt’s speech, set to work on his famous “Four Freedoms” paintings: the one with the rough-hewn workman speaking his piece at a town meeting (Freedom of Speech); the one with the old lady praying in the pew (Freedom of Worship); the one with the Thanksgiving dinner (Freedom from Want); and the one with the young parents looking in on their sleeping children (Freedom from Fear). These paintings, first reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, proved enormously popular, so much so that the original works were commandeered for a national tour that raised $133 million in U.S. war bonds, while the Office of War Information printed up four million poster copies for distribution.

Whatever your opinion of Rockwell (and I’m a fan), the resonance of the “Four Freedoms” paintings with wartime Americans offers tremendous insight into how U.S. citizens viewed their idealized selves. Freedom from Want, the most popular of all, is especially telling, for the scene it depicts is joyous but defiantly unostentatious. There is a happily gathered family, there are plain white curtains, there is a large turkey, there are some celery stalks in a dish, and there is a bowl of fruit, but there is not a hint of overabundance, overindulgence, elaborate table settings, ambitious seasonal centerpieces, or any other conventions of modern-day shelter-mag porn.

It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping. Though the germ of that idea would form shortly, not long after the war ended.

William J. Levitt was a Seabee in the Pacific theater during the war, a member of one of the Construction Battalions (CBs) of the U.S. Navy. One of his jobs was to build airfields at as fast a clip as possible, on the cheap. Levitt had already worked in his father’s construction business back home, and he held an option on a thousand acres of potato fields in Hempstead, New York, out on Long Island. Coming back from the war with newly acquired speed-building skills and a vision of all those returning G.I.’s needing homes, he set to work on turning those potato fields into the first Levittown.

Levitt had the forces of history and demographics on his side. The G.I. Bill, enacted in 1944, at the tail end of the New Deal, offered returning veterans low-interest loans with no money down to purchase a house—an ideal scenario, coupled with a severe housing shortage and a boom in young families, for the rapid-fire development of suburbia.

The first Levitt houses, built in 1947, had two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, and an unfinished loft attic that could theoretically be converted into another bedroom. The houses had no basements or garages, but they sat on lots of 60 by 100 feet, and—McMansionistas, take note—took up only 12 percent of their lot’s footprint. They cost about $8,000.

“Levittown” is today a byword for creepy suburban conformity, but Bill Levitt, with his Henry Ford–like acumen for mass production, played a crucial role in making home ownership a new tenet of the American Dream, especially as he expanded his operations to other states and inspired imitators. From 1900 to 1940, the percentage of families who lived in homes that they themselves owned held steady at around 45 percent. But by 1950 this figure had shot up to 55 percent, and by 1960 it was at 62 percent. Likewise, the homebuilding business, severely depressed during the war, revived abruptly at war’s end, going from 114,000 new single-family houses started in 1944 to 937,000 in 1946—and to 1.7 million in 1950.

Levitt initially sold his houses only to vets, but this policy didn’t hold for long; demand for a new home of one’s own wasn’t remotely limited to ex-G.I.’s, as the Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra was astute enough to note in It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1946, a full year before the first Levittown was populated, Capra’s creation George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) cut the ribbon on his own eponymous suburban-tract development, Bailey Park, and his first customer wasn’t a war veteran but a hardworking Italian immigrant, the tremulously grateful saloonkeeper Mr. Martini. (An overachiever, Capra was both a war veteran and a hardworking Italian immigrant.)

Buttressed by postwar optimism and prosperity, the American Dream was undergoing another recalibration. Now it really did translate into specific goals rather than Adams’s more broadly defined aspirations. Home ownership was the fundamental goal, but, depending on who was doing the dreaming, the package might also include car ownership, television ownership (which multiplied from 6 million to 60 million sets in the U.S. between 1950 and 1960), and the intent to send one’s kids to college. The G.I. Bill was as crucial on that last count as it was to the housing boom. In providing tuition money for returning vets, it not only stocked the universities with new students—in 1947, roughly half of the nation’s college enrollees were ex-G.I.’s—but put the very idea of college within reach of a generation that had previously considered higher education the exclusive province of the rich and the extraordinarily gifted. Between 1940 and 1965, the number of U.S. adults who had completed at least four years of college more than doubled.

Nothing reinforced the seductive pull of the new, suburbanized American Dream more than the burgeoning medium of television, especially as its production nexus shifted from New York, where the grubby, schlubby shows The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show were shot, to Southern California, where the sprightly, twinkly shows The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver were made. While the former shows are actually more enduringly watchable and funny, the latter were the foremost “family” sitcoms of the 1950s—and, as such, the aspirational touchstones of real American families.

The Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet), the Andersons (Father Knows Best), and the Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver) lived in airy houses even nicer than those that Bill Levitt built. In fact, the Nelson home in Ozzie and Harriet was a faithful replica of the two-story Colonial in Hollywood where Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson really lived when they weren’t filming their show. The Nelsons also offered, in David and especially the swoonsome, guitar-strumming Ricky, two attractive exemplars of that newly ascendant and clout-wielding American demographic, the teenager. “The postwar spread of American values would be spearheaded by the idea of the teenager,” writes Jon Savage somewhat ominously in Teenage, his history of youth culture. “This new type was pleasure-seeking, product-hungry, embodying the new global society where social inclusion was to be granted through purchasing power.”

Family Reunion (1970), by Norm Kerr. © 2009 Kodak, courtesy of George Eastman House. Enlarge this photo.

Voting Day in Clarkson, New York (1960), by Bob Phillips. © 2009 Kodak, courtesy of George Eastman House. Enlarge this photo.

Still, the American Dream was far from degenerating into the consumerist nightmare it would later become (or, more precisely, become mistaken for). What’s striking about the Ozzie and Harriet–style 50s dream is its relative modesty of scale. Yes, the TV and advertising portrayals of family life were antiseptic and too-too-perfect, but the dream homes, real and fictional, seem downright dowdy to modern eyes, with none of the “great room” pretensions and tricked-out kitchen islands that were to come.

Nevertheless, some social critics, such as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, were already fretful. In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, a best-seller, Galbraith posited that America had reached an almost unsurpassable and unsustainable degree of mass affluence because the average family owned a home, one car, and one TV. In pursuing these goals, Galbraith said, Americans had lost a sense of their priorities, focusing on consumerism at the expense of public-sector needs like parks, schools, and infrastructure maintenance. At the same time, they had lost their parents’ Depression-era sense of thrift, blithely taking out personal loans or enrolling in installment plans to buy their cars and refrigerators.

While these concerns would prove prescient, Galbraith severely underestimated the potential for average U.S. household income and spending power to grow further. The very same year that The Affluent Society came out, Bank of America introduced the BankAmericard, the forerunner to Visa, today the most widely used credit card in the world.

What unfolded over the next generation was the greatest standard-of-living upgrade that this country had ever experienced: an economic sea change powered by the middle class’s newly sophisticated engagement in personal finance via credit cards, mutual funds, and discount brokerage houses—and its willingness to take on debt.

Consumer credit, which had already rocketed upward from $2.6 billion to $45 billion in the postwar period (1945 to 1960), shot up to $105 billion by 1970. “It was as if the entire middle class was betting that tomorrow would be better than today,” as the financial writer Joe Nocera put it in his 1994 book, A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class. “Thus did Americans begin to spend money they didn’t yet have; thus did the unaffordable become affordable. And thus, it must be said, did the economy grow.”

Before it spiraled out of control, the “money revolution,” to use Nocera’s term for this great middle-class financial engagement, really did serve the American Dream. It helped make life “better and richer and fuller” for a broad swath of the populace in ways that our Depression-era forebears could only have imagined.

To be glib about it, the Brady family’s way of life was even sweeter than the Nelson family’s. The Brady Bunch, which debuted in 1969, in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’s old Friday-night-at-eight slot on ABC, occupied the same space in the American psyche of the 70s as Ozzie and Harriet had in the 50s: as the middle class’s American Dream wish-fulfillment fantasy, again in a generically idyllic Southern California setting. But now there were two cars in the driveway. Now there were annual vacations at the Grand Canyon and an improbably caper-filled trip to Hawaii. (The average number of airplane trips per American household, less than one per year in 1954, was almost three per year in 1970.) And the house itself was snazzier—that open-plan living area just inside the Brady home’s entryway, with the “floating” staircase leading up to the bedrooms, was a major step forward in fake-nuclear-family living.

By 1970, for the first time, more than half of all U.S. families held at least one credit card. But usage was still relatively conservative: only 22 percent of cardholders carried a balance from one month’s bill to the next. Even in the so-called go-go 80s, this figure hovered in the 30s, compared to 56 percent today. But it was in the 80s that the American Dream began to take on hyperbolic connotations, to be conflated with extreme success: wealth, basically. The representative TV families, whether benignly genteel (the Huxtables on The Cosby Show) or soap-opera bonkers (the Carringtons on Dynasty), were undeniably rich. “Who says you can’t have it all?” went the jingle in a ubiquitous beer commercial from the era, which only got more alarming as it went on to ask, “Who says you can’t have the world without losing your soul?”

The deregulatory atmosphere of the Reagan years—the loosening of strictures on banks and energy companies, the reining in of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, the removal of vast tracts of land from the Department of the Interior’s protected list—was, in a sense, a calculated regression to the immature, individualistic American Dream of yore; not for nothing did Ronald Reagan (and, later, far less effectively, George W. Bush) go out of his way to cultivate a frontiersman’s image, riding horses, chopping wood, and reveling in the act of clearing brush.

To some degree, this outlook succeeded in rallying middle-class Americans to seize control of their individual fates as never before—to “Go for it!,” as people in yellow ties and red braces were fond of saying at the time. In one of Garry Trudeau’s finest moments from the 80s, a Doonesbury character was shown watching a political campaign ad in which a woman concluded her pro-Reagan testimonial with the tagline “Ronald Reagan … because I’m worth it.”

But this latest recalibration saw the American Dream get decoupled from any concept of the common good (the movement to privatize Social Security began to take on momentum) and, more portentously, from the concepts of working hard and managing one’s expectations. You only had to walk as far as your mailbox to discover that you’d been “pre-approved” for six new credit cards, and that the credit limits on your existing cards had been raised without your even asking. Never before had money been freer, which is to say, never before had taking on debt become so guiltless and seemingly consequence-free—at both the personal and institutional levels. President Reagan added $1 trillion to the national debt, and in 1986, the United States, formerly the world’s biggest creditor nation, became the world’s biggest debtor nation. Perhaps debt was the new frontier.

A curious phenomenon took hold in the 1990s and 2000s. Even as the easy credit continued, and even as a sustained bull market cheered investors and papered over the coming mortgage and credit crises that we now face, Americans were losing faith in the American Dream—or whatever it was they believed the American Dream to be. A CNN poll taken in 2006 found that more than half of those surveyed, 54 percent, considered the American Dream unachievable—and CNN noted that the numbers were nearly the same in a 2003 poll it had conducted. Before that, in 1995, a Business Week/Harris poll found that two-thirds of those surveyed believed the American Dream had become harder to achieve in the past 10 years, and three-fourths believed that achieving the dream would be harder still in the upcoming 10 years.

To the writer Gregg Easterbrook, who at the beginning of this decade was a visiting fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution, this was all rather puzzling, because, by the definition of any prior American generation, the American Dream had been more fully realized by more people than ever before. While acknowledging that an obscene amount of America’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small group of ultra-rich, Easterbrook noted that “the bulk of the gains in living standards—the gains that really matter—have occurred below the plateau of wealth.”

By nearly every measurable indicator, Easterbrook pointed out in 2003, life for the average American had gotten better than it used to be. Per capita income, adjusted for inflation, had more than doubled since 1960. Almost 70 percent of Americans owned the places they lived in, versus under 20 percent a century earlier. Furthermore, U.S. citizens averaged 12.3 years of education, tops in the world and a length of time in school once reserved solely for the upper class.

Yet when Easterbrook published these figures in a book, the book was called The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He was paying attention not only to the polls in which people complained that the American Dream was out of reach, but to academic studies by political scientists and mental-health experts that detected a marked uptick since the midcentury in the number of Americans who considered themselves unhappy.

The American Dream was now almost by definition unattainable, a moving target that eluded people’s grasp; nothing was ever enough. It compelled Americans to set unmeetable goals for themselves and then consider themselves failures when these goals, inevitably, went unmet. In examining why people were thinking this way, Easterbrook raised an important point. “For at least a century,” he wrote, “Western life has been dominated by a revolution of rising expectations: Each generation expected more than its antecedent. Now most Americans and Europeans already have what they need, in addition to considerable piles of stuff they don’t need.”

This might explain the existential ennui of the well-off, attractive, solipsistic kids on Laguna Beach (2004–6) and The Hills (2006–9), the MTV reality soaps that represent the curdling of the whole Southern California wish-fulfillment genre on television. Here were affluent beach-community teens enriching themselves further not even by acting or working in any real sense, but by allowing themselves to be filmed as they sat by campfires maundering on about, like, how much their lives suck.

In the same locale that begat these programs, Orange County, there emerged a Bill Levitt of McMansions, an Iranian-born entrepreneur named Hadi Makarechian whose company, Capital Pacific Holdings, specializes in building tract-housing developments for multi-millionaires, places with names like Saratoga Cove and Ritz Pointe. In a 2001 profile of Makarechian in The New Yorker, David Brooks mentioned that the builder had run into zoning restrictions on his latest development, called Oceanfront, that prevented the “entry statement”—the walls that mark the entrance to the development—from being any higher than four feet. Noted Brooks drolly, “The people who are buying homes in Oceanfront are miffed about the small entry statement.” Nothing was ever enough.

An extreme example, perhaps, but not misrepresentative of the national mind-set. It says a lot about our buying habits and constant need for new, better stuff that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission were utterly comfortable with setting a hard 2009 date for the switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting—pretty much assuming that every American household owns or will soon own a flat-panel digital TV—even though such TVs have been widely available for only five years. (As recently as January 2006, just 20 percent of U.S. households owned a digital television, and the average price point for such a television was still above a thousand dollars.)

In hewing to the misbegotten notion that our standard of living must trend inexorably upward, we entered in the late 90s and early 00s into what might be called the Juiceball Era of the American Dream—a time of steroidally outsize purchasing and artificially inflated numbers. As Easterbrook saw it, it was no longer enough for people to keep up with the Joneses; no, now they had to “call and raise the Joneses.”

“Bloated houses,” he wrote, “arise from a desire to call-and-raise-the-Joneses—surely not from a belief that a seven-thousand-square-foot house that comes right up against the property setback line would be an ideal place in which to dwell.” More ominously and to the point: “To call-and-raise-the-Joneses, Americans increasingly take on debt.”

This personal debt, coupled with mounting institutional debt, is what has got us in the hole we’re in now. While it remains a laudable proposition for a young couple to secure a low-interest loan for the purchase of their first home, the more recent practice of running up huge credit-card bills to pay for, well, whatever, has come back to haunt us. The amount of outstanding consumer debt in the U.S. has gone up every year since 1958, and up an astonishing 22 percent since 2000 alone. The financial historian and V.F. contributor Niall Ferguson reckons that the over-leveraging of America has become especially acute in the last 10 years, with the U.S.’s debt burden, as a proportion of the gross domestic product, “in the region of 355 percent,” he says. “So, debt is three and a half times the output of the economy. That’s some kind of historic maximum.”

James Truslow Adams’s words remind us that we’re still fortunate to live in a country that offers us such latitude in choosing how we go about our lives and work—even in this crapola economy. Still, we need to challenge some of the middle-class orthodoxies that have brought us to this point—not least the notion, widely promulgated throughout popular culture, that the middle class itself is a soul-suffocating dead end.

The middle class is a good place to be, and, optimally, where most Americans will spend their lives if they work hard and don’t over-extend themselves financially. On American Idol, Simon Cowell has done a great many youngsters a great service by telling them that they’re not going to Hollywood and that they should find some other line of work. The American Dream is not fundamentally about stardom or extreme success; in recalibrating our expectations of it, we need to appreciate that it is not an all-or-nothing deal—that it is not, as in hip-hop narratives and in Donald Trump’s brain, a stark choice between the penthouse and the streets.

And what about the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United States must live better than the one that preceded it? While this idea is still crucial to families struggling in poverty and to immigrants who’ve arrived here in search of a better life than that they left behind, it’s no longer applicable to an American middle class that lives more comfortably than any version that came before it. (Was this not one of the cautionary messages of the most thoughtful movie of 2008, wall-e?) I’m no champion of downward mobility, but the time has come to consider the idea of simple continuity: the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable middle-class way of life, where the standard of living remains happily constant from one generation to the next.

This is not a matter of any generation’s having to “lower its sights,” to use President Obama’s words, nor is it a denial that some children of lower- and middle-class parents will, through talent and/or good fortune, strike it rich and bound precipitously into the upper class. Nor is it a moony, nostalgic wish for a return to the scrappy 30s or the suburban 50s, because any sentient person recognizes that there’s plenty about the good old days that wasn’t so good: the original Social Security program pointedly excluded farmworkers and domestics (i.e., poor rural laborers and minority women), and the original Levittown didn’t allow black people in.

But those eras do offer lessons in scale and self-control. The American Dream should require hard work, but it should not require 80-hour workweeks and parents who never see their kids from across the dinner table. The American Dream should entail a first-rate education for every child, but not an education that leaves no extra time for the actual enjoyment of childhood. The American Dream should accommodate the goal of home ownership, but without imposing a lifelong burden of unmeetable debt. Above all, the American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and achieve what you wish.

David Kamp is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

2 Responses to Présidence Obama: Touche pas à mon rêve américain! (The long march of the American Dream)

  1. I want to start a blog but would like to own the domain. Any ideas how to go about this?. http://daijoji.blogspot.com

    J'aime

  2. jcdurbant dit :

    DISSING THE UNFOUNDED AMERICAN DREAM

    [Americans have] a continuing normative commitment to the ideals of individual freedom and mobility, values that extend far beyond the issue of race in the American mind. The depth of this commitment may be summarily dismissed as the unfounded optimism of the average American—I may not be Donald Trump now, but just you wait; if I don’t make it, my children will.

    Barack Obama and Robert Fisher

    J'aime

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