What made America great?
And what still makes it great?
Andrew Cuomo’s comment, reported in the NY Times, that America “was never that great” was both unfortunate and thought provoking. His intent in uttering it was to counter the President’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, but it seems to have backfired on him. But it has made me wonder what made America great in the first place?
According to Cuomo, America can only be great “when every American is fully engaged”. I think I understand what he was trying to say, but he needed to say more. The inevitable backpedaling that followed from Cuomo and his staff used the word “great” a lot, and even claimed that he really was suggesting America was already great but had yet to achieve “maximum greatness”. Still, it left me wondering what made us great?
The period of America’s greatness is generally thought to be the two decades or so immediately following the end of World War II. The American military had won the war and stood first on the front lines of the cold war against the USSR. The American economy was booming and lifting a decimated Europe with it. And Americans at home were prospering like never before — and as never had been imagined during the Depression that preceded the war. Americans were giddy with greatness, and much of the world agreed as American foreign policy favored engagement and an abundance of economic and political aid.
To be sure, the country was far from perfect. Overseas, we often acted more like a ruling empire than a helpful ally, removing and installing political leaders as benefited US interests and providing aid for strategic and not altruistic reasons. At home, we seemed to be a circumscribed and segregated democracy rather than the egalitarian melting pot that we aspired to be. We still had battles to fight for equal rights, help for the poor, an end to a bad war, and a cleaner environment.
It was that aspiration and especially, the freedom to pursue those goals and fight those battles that made us great. That, to me, is the essence of American greatness. No problem is too big that it can’t be solved, be it a technical issue like splitting the atom or sending a man to the moon or a built-in systemic problem like the rule of royalty an ocean away or the entrenched Jim Crow laws of the South or the millions who are born into poverty with little opportunity to escape. We don’t always get it right or make it perfect, but we continue to push forward in search of better ways to get the job done.
So, if Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo agreed, if only for a moment, that America is not currently great, it is only because neither of their respective parties is offering the aspiration and persistence needed to solve the problems we face. The party that had for so long championed solutions to so many problems slowly lost the will to take on the big issues that still persist, and the party that is currently in power believes that government is the primary problem that needs to be solved.
Fortunately, this country has never relied on political parties to make change. Change has almost always come from the grassroots, as we saw with the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements of the 1950s and 60s, and from popular upstarts within the established ranks, as we saw with Donald Trump in the GOP and as we are seeing with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party. Most often, agents of change have upheld the constitution that binds us togther and they have respected the independence of the institutions that protect our freedoms.
So long as those freedoms remain, and so long as there are enough people willing to take on the great problems facing the country, America will remain great.