It was April, 1988. I was 16 years old. I don’t recall the exact date but it’s a matter of public record if I wanted to research it. Pennsylvania’s primary was approaching and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis made a campaign stop in my high school. I was in one of the classes chosen to attend his speech.
It was a good speech: rousing and energetic. I also appreciated that this was a politician who actually came out to speak to us, even though the majority of the people in attendance couldn’t actually vote for him because they weren’t yet 18.
I don’t remember much of what he actually said, but he did make a comment aimed at the scandal-plagued administration of outgoing president Ronald Reagan: he said he would make America great again.
With a two-party system, it’s certainly not uncommon to see presidential candidates for the party not currently occupying the White House argue that the sitting president is somehow taking away from America’s greatness and thus, if you vote for me, America will become great, like it was at some vaguely defined, and probably overly-romanticized point in the past.
I want to make it clear before I proceed, that I do not subscribe to the notion of American exceptionalism. We are human beings and no better or worse than anyone else on the planet, either as individuals or groups. The accident of our birth in the USA is just that: an accident or a stroke of luck. I can go through a laundry list of things about this country’s history and modern appearance that are worthy of criticism, if not outright disgust or shame. (Easy example: why did it take a war to end slavery?)
But the USA is a product of the enlightenment. As a social experiment, I think the general success of the idea of self-rule has proven more successful than the expectations even the most optimistic of the architects of our national identity. We were, after all, the first such attempt anywhere in the world in modern times, and certainly at the largest scale ever. (The Greek city-states before the Roman conquest were first…)
And since then, authoritarianism, divine rights of kings, empires, and oppressive regimes have gradually fallen away, replaced by some of those very same ideas that were so new and novel 240 years ago. Not everywhere. Yet. But in more and more places. And in some cases, other places have simply implemented it better than we have.
Yes. That is something great. Something to be proud of. It hasn’t always been easy. And the outcomes have been far from certain. But it’s the promise of what America can be that is the source of her historical and current greatness.
As always happens, though, some people might feel left by the wayside as things don’t go their way, and they tend to romanticize a time when the conditions might have been more favorable to them personally. But I would ask them: when was this time? Is greatness merely a time when you might or might not have gotten a better hand than you’ve got now? How much of your problems are your own fault?
If there’s something going on in the country — culturally, economically, or politically — that you don’t like, it’s easy to see it as a decline in greatness. But if you can step away from that, you should ask yourself what truly defines our greatness. And it shouldn’t take much to realize that it’s the same thing that it was when we first wrote the constitution. In fact, 27 amendments later, it’s even greater. If all men (and women) were created equal, then we are more equal today than we were at a time when slaves were only 3/5 of a person.
Make America great again? Please. I’d rather hear someone talk about how we can work to build on her already great promise.
How about taking a song like this to heart: