President Donald Trump is determined to make America great again — by selling hats with that message, funding moribund industries, shutting out hard-working immigrants, dismantling health care, environmental and financial safeguards, and reinstituting the tariffs that led to the Great Depression.
Not only is Trump incapable of restoring American greatness — it arguably never existed.
America “was never that great.” So went the controversial comment New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was recently forced to walk back.
After all, it’s heresy to suggest this country is, or was, anything less than the greatest country on Earth.
But Cuomo was right. There is abundant evidence that we are far from the top of the heap:
Education: According to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the United States ranks 38th out of 71 nations in math and 24th in science.
Poverty: The United States only ranks above Chile, Israel, and Mexico in terms of poverty levels of the 36 developed nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
Literacy: The United States ranks 125th among nations (in between Oman and Syria) with a 86% literacy rate
Distribution of wealth: Among OECD nations, the United States is one of the most unequal in terms of distribution of wealth. The U.S. only fares better than Turkey, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and South Africa.
Infant mortality: According to the CIA, the U.S ranks 170th in infant mortality rates, just above Gibraltar and below Serbia.
Obesity: The U.S. hosts more obese people than any nation on Earth.
Health care costs: The U.S. spends nearly 8,000 per person on health care, about twice that of most OECD nations, yet we have a year less life expectancy than the OECD average, less doctors per capita, and fewer hospital beds.
Murder: The United States has the 81st highest murder rate in the world, putting it in between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Rape: Of 119 countries examined, the United States has the 14th most reported rape incidents per 100,000 citizens.
Theft: Of 71 countries examined, the United States has the 9th most reported number of thefts per 100,000 citizens.
So where is the U.S. #1?
- Defense spending
- Number of guns
- Wheat production
- Soybean sales (until Trump’s tariffs)
- Higher education (perhaps)
A slim list indeed.
Surely we are the world’s greatest military power. Yes, except that China and India have larger standing armies. And Russia, which has long had more nuclear missiles, fighter jets and tanks.
We’ve never fought a war we haven’t won — that is, if you don’t count Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Cuba by proxy, and arguably a war that left a fragmented and volatile Iraq.
But once, surely, we were an incomparable economic power. Not when founded, when we were but a backwater of 3,000,000 people. By the Civil War, the United States boasted one of the world’s largest economies. America’s era of economic dominance was comparatively brief — a century and a half. The heyday of its median household income, adjusted for inflation, was 1999. The high point of middle class prosperity was the 1970s -– after the 19th century robber barons and before the 20th and 21st century ones put money in the hands of the 1%. By 2017, China had reasserted its far longer-held position as the world’s leading economic power.
Surely then our greatness lies in pioneering the concept of democracy. Wait, democratic nations date as far back as the ancient Greeks. Genghis Khan, not exactly our image of Jefferson on a horse, instituted freedom of religion, trial by peers, popular elections and full rights for minorities.
Yet our Founding Fathers offered no voting rights to women and only 2/5th a vote to each black man. Our patriarchs were rich white men seeking a tax break, not commoners in search of universal democracy.
And as for offering freedom to the world, the Statue of Liberty never had much company onshore in requesting “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” American immigration policy has long favored Western Europeans over other immigrants. Were it not for repressive quotas against Eastern Europeans, my grandparents wouldn’t have died in a Nazi concentration camp.
OK, then, at least we offer the world the American Dream, the opportunity for any hard-working man or woman to get ahead in the world. There are enough cracks in the system here to allow for some celebrated, and many unheralded, success stories among the downtrodden.
But far more often the poor, minorities and immigrants in particular, are shackled by lack of opportunity for education, inadequate health care and family assistance, unsafe neighborhoods, and old-fashioned American bigotry.
There is greatness in America. And too much that is not great. So don’t love it without qualification. And don’t tell those of us who see America’s flaws to leave. Only persistent idealism can make America’s reality match its mythology.