Our president-elect is not the first to use the slogan “make America great again.” Ronald Reagan used it in 1980 when we were at the height of stagflation, energy crisis, unemployment, an Iranian hostage crisis, and a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I’m not going to discuss whether this is a similar time, which I think would be a hopelessly futile argument. What I want to explore is an observation Jon Stewart made in an interview with Charlie Rose. He noted that no one ever asked the president-elect “what makes America great?” He went on to observe that what many might understand is that America is in a competition for greatness rather than America’s greatness being a greatness of character connected with its values.
My hunch is that for many people, it is simpler. America is great if we have jobs and feel safe. Even here, the question of our character arises. Do we want America to be great on these terms just for me, or for those like me? Do we want an America where all of its people, from various social classes, and religious beliefs, and countries of origin, and racial identities, and gender identities and sexual orientations to have the opportunity for good work in a country where they feel safe from attack from others? Do we want this kind of America for those with whom we deeply differ?
That seems consistent with the kind of greatness Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence when he said,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [meaning people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson was contending for a country where the basic equality of people was recognized simply because they were human beings, and that this was based not in some particular characteristic they had, but simply that they were created. “Inalienable” means that nothing can, or ought be done to remove these rights from the possessor. Justice in such a country always protects these rights and brings sanction against any who would impair a person’s life, liberty or happiness.
We have not always lived up to this aspiration, yet I think have always been haunted by it. Jefferson, himself a slaveholder who wanted to but never did free his slaves, confessed that the news of the disputes over admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state came “like a fire bell in the night.” We stole land from the Native people who preceded us here. We withheld suffrage from women. Yet we’ve been haunted by Jefferson’s words from the Declaration. We elected an African-American president and nearly elected a woman to the presidency. In fear, we interned over 100,000 Japanese, stripping them of their property during World War II. In 1988 we apologized and compensated the families of those interned. We’ve boasted of our nation as a nation of immigrants and yet barred our borders, humiliated those who we do permit to come, and then belatedly, we celebrate the ways they have enriched the fabric of our national life. We betray our deepest principles only for them to come back and haunt us.
The other form of greatness Stewart talked about was the idea of greatness as a competition — American dominance in the world, where we control resources, trade, and project our military might into every corner of the world, thwarting others with similar pretensions. Yet such dominance comes at a price, not only in making enemies of others disadvantaged by our dominance, but in the sheer cost of maintaining that dominance, of which our national debt of $20 trillion is but one symptom.
Yet our values haunt us even here. Our claim that all are created equal and have inalienable rights extends far beyond our borders. It gives hope to democracy movements around the world. And yet we also have to face the troubling question of whether our policies and practices around the world have indeed affirmed the equality of others or treated them as lesser beings. Can we possibly be great if we make others less?
The question before us all is whether we will act in ways that betray our deepest principles, leaving us yet more haunting regrets which must be addressed by a future generation? Or will we as a people rise to the vision of greatness that has always inspired us at our best, and expect nothing less of our leaders?