1. Greatness is not an end in itself.
When we as a country focus on the idea of “greatness,” we lose sight of what the aim of government should actually be; the individual and his/her flourishing. The flourishing of the individual should be the litmus test for good policy and good politicians. When greatness becomes the end of our country, the focus is suddenly on our perception as opposed to our substance.
Greatness, by definition is not a bad thing. But focusing on the greatness of the United States as a single entity is fundamentally opposed to the very ideals which made America great in the first place. America has become great as a result of the liberty of the individual. While America has had its fair share of flaws in not recognizing the liberties of various groups of individuals, it has shown a trend of overcoming those flaws and improving itself. It is the greatness of the individual that has made America great, not the greatness of the state as a military powerhouse, a benevolent caretaker, or as a diplomatic peacekeeper.
But with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” the emphasis is taken from the individual to America as a collective whole. Suddenly, potentially at the expense of individuals, the aim is to keep America at a certain level of greatness. This mindset combined with a trend towards socialism is remarkably dangerous. A convincing case could be made that a great country would not have poverty, inequality, or citizens without healthcare, so rather than focusing on individual responsibility we find ourselves coercing individuals into taking care of the rest of the country. A great country would not have hate speech or religious tensions, so the potential arises for a restriction on those things at the expense of individual rights for the greatness of the state as a whole. This runs entirely contrary to the very principles of the individual that made America great in the first place.
2. We should never look to the government to make us great.
Desiring a great country for the sake of having a great country already has the potential to be dangerous to America’s true source of greatness; the individual. What is even worse is losing sight of the individual, and electing politicians with that aim no-longer in focus. At that point we have opened ourselves up to handing over power to a ruling body to focus on maintaining a great country rather than focusing on the flourishing of the individual.
History has a lot to say about countries who have done such a thing. It was Nero’s focus on the greatness of Rome which led him to set fire to it so he could build it back up to satisfy his desire for splendor and magnanimity at the expense of his subjects. Even more disturbing is the fact that the doorway was opened for the likes of Nero through a mindset similar to the United States’ thirst for greatness. As Rome conquered the ancient world in the name of Rome’s greatness, the soldiers and the people as a whole became endeared to whomever could promise them the most. Through appeals to preserving Rome’s glory and ensuring security for the people, men like Marius, Sulla, Crassus, and Caesar undermined and destroyed the Republic -and ultimately led to the complete destruction of Imperial Rome.
Jumping to the 20th Century, Hitler appealed to a nationalistic yearning to restore Germany’s respect and strength, and by all accounts was succesful for a time. But any reader should know the extreme cost of Hitler’s “success.” Lenin promised security and greatness for Russia, and thereby entered it into an era of bloodshed, violence, and poverty. Mao Zedong terrorized and slaughtered his people for the sake of the greater good of China. History can provide many more examples of the same phenomenon. This may seem anachronistic. However, there is a constant that has remained throughout all of history, and that is mankind’s desire for greatness and security which makes him vulnerable to tyranny.
I would assume that America’s current Presidential candidates do not have the same ends in mind as Caesar, Hitler, Lenin, and Zedong. But the mindset that we will elect a politician so that politician can make us great is a very dangerous road that, historically, has never gone well for any who travel it. We should be electing politicians so that they can administrate this country in such a way that protects the rights and liberties of its citizens so they can flourish through their own effort. We should never trust any politician who promises to make us great because it is we the people who have made this country great. It is the job of the politician to keep the government out of our way.
3. There is no perfect era of the United States to which we should be trying to return.
America has gone through several stages. Each era has had its pros and cons. There have been eras in which the United States has thrived more than others economically and socially. However, there is no “golden age” to which we should feel obligated to return. The founding was a time in which we were divided, had slavery, and women were not even allowed to vote. The 1800’s consisted of a bloody civil war, genocide, and continued racial/gender-based discrimination. The early 1900’s was plagued by poverty, Jim Crow laws, and a struggle to attain humane conditions in the industrial revolution. The rest of the century saw two world wars out of which America emerged victorious, but was faced with racial and political polarization, the Great Depression, exponential governmental growth, socialist policies, mass shootings, a silent epidemic of human trafficking, and organized crime (amongst innumerable other issues which we could all describe). Despite the fact that there has been no perfect age of the United States, the U.S. is still a great country. This is not because it is perfect, but because its people are free to improve their own condition. The U.S., as it stands now, needs a lot of work. But I challenge any reader to point to me a stage where we faced no issues or challenges.
Any politician who promises to make America great “again” is fabricating and appealing to a false nostalgia of the “good ol’ days.” But the reality is that there are no good ol’ days. There are certainly things in the past that were good, and there are indeed good things about our country which we have lost that we should be trying to recover. But there is no point to which we should be trying to return.
By all means we ought to look to the past and adopt the good while learning from the bad. But “making America great again” is a horrible and dangerous oversimplification of what must be a very nuanced approach as we learn from our past.
Conclusion: There’s definitely a lot wrong with America, so what’s the answer?
I agree that America is not necessarily as great as it has been. But it never has been a politician that made us great, and electing a politician is not what will make America as great as, or greater than, it has been.
America, in its essence, is the Constitution as a composition of values and principles that has allowed a nation of individuals to flourish far more than any other time in history. If we are to keep America great, the answer is simple. We must keep our focus on the individual, and safeguard the Constitution as the law that has allowed individuals to flourish. We must avoid the temptation to ask any politician to restore our greatness because politicians never gave it to us in the first place. It was principles of personal rights, responsibility, and liberty. We must elect politicians who will stand by and defend those principles that have made us who we are rather than electing politicians who promise to take us back to a golden age that has never existed if we just give them enough power.
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