Donald Trump claims he can “make America great again,” but when did it stop being great? The United States is the richest, mightiest nation on earth. It has the highest GDP and most powerful military. Yet the 2016 presidential races are exposing a dark, depressing aspect of American supremacy.
We are the greatest nation on the planet, but what makes us great? Our country doesn’t have the highest life expectancy on earth, nor the lowest infant mortality rate. It doesn’t have the best educational system. Nor does it offer a level playing field or equal opportunities for all.
However, in terms of power, the United States is still champion of the world due to its economic influence, military prowess, weaponry, currency, spending prowess and GNP. Yet our nation isn’t regarded as the best.
On “best” lists, the United States usually comes in between third and tenth. At the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland in January, Germany was chosen as the best nation in the world, and we were number four. The United Nation ranks Norway as number one and the United States as eighth. Several lifestyle and business magazines review the best countries to live in, and rank Denmark as number one.
So why don’t we rank highest? Polling criteria is based on life expectancy, education, personal incomes and standard of living measures, and the nation that takes the top spot usually has a very high gross national income per capita (we rank 11th), and long life expectancy (we rank 43 – or 34, 41, or 48 depending on whose list you consult).
But the United States nonetheless made all of the Best Lists I could find on the Internet, and it’s still considered the world’s mightiest nation. So we should celebrate, right?
But our attitude is not so cheery. Instead politicians and pundits keep forecasting failure. The lead story on March 6 in The Denver Post’s Perspective section was typical in its pessimism. “Yes, America is in decline” it declared, followed by the subhead: “Trump has a point, but there’s time to fix things.”
Then Noah Smith explained why he thinks the world’s only remaining superpower is slipping in prestige, wealth and power. Smith cites two well-known economic trends: that wages in the U.S. are stagnant, and that our standard of living is barely rising, but he admits: “The U.S. isn’t about to turn into Rome ….
“But there are other senses in which a nation can decline,” Smith concludes, and notes that China’s gross domestic product is surging toward the top. As Smith sees it, “With its [China’s] economic rise will come military and diplomatic influence, reducing U.S. supremacy even more.”
That’s a common assumption, but a questionable one, since it’s unclear what GDP has to do with military or diplomatic influence. In total GDP, Mexico far exceeds both Switzerland and Sweden. And if you consider GDP per capita, rather than total GDP, Qatar is number one in the world, and Kuwait is way ahead of the U.S. And then there’s North Korea, an absolute wreck financially, and yet a force to be feared.
And thus Smith’s ideas about America’s decline are not merely suspect; one should wonder whether the dilemma he predicts may actually be an improvement. The United States is currently the world’s largest consumer nation, which is a title many alarmists fear China will be assuming very soon. And make no mistake, being the planet’s biggest spender may give China more power and influence.
But, on the other hand, being the earth’s most intrepid consumer might not be giving us the sort of prestige we want. And it certainly doesn’t give us a lot of credibility when it comes to offering economic advice or trying to save the environment. In fact, it’s hard to figure out how we consume more than China given that their population is 1,380,937,018 compared to our 323,598,158.
But more importantly, our way of life isn’t making us content or cohesive, and maybe that’s because our political emphasis is all wrong.
It’s entirely possible that the liberal and conservative ideologies established in the 1950s and 60s no longer serve us well in our increasingly global world – any more than Whig or abolitionist ideals would.
Conservative politics have long encouraged anti-communist stances, assertive military intervention, minimal government regulation, and low taxes and government spending in order to encourage private enterprise.
But now we’re fighting stateless terrorists and asking the communists to help. And the Internet and high-speed communications have totally transformed our world. Today people buy, sell, trade and contract for goods, stocks, currencies, pharmaceuticals, weapons, information and services online. And fraud is endemic and pervasive, with culprits stealing identities, bank accounts and state secrets.
Now government participation is necessary. The federal government patrols our borders, safeguards our air traffic and airports, polices cyberspace, mops up oil spills, reduces human trafficking, monitors international commerce, tracks terrorists and criminal cartels, and protects American travelers and businessmen abroad.
Currently our nation is an innovative business leader and diplomat, and an intrepid cold warrior, still locked in ceaseless competition with North Korea, Russia, China, Iran and other fiercely combative nations to prove it’s the world’s toughest and scariest contender.
And here at home, Republicans and Democrats alike are encouraging competition and infighting between minorities and majorities, rich and poor, red states and blue, and workers versus other workers.
And liberals keep championing higher taxes and spending in order to support progressive social programs. But sometimes their efforts prove problematic, because the have-nots in America’s impoverished regions still have easier access to our tax-supported prisons than our publicly funded colleges, concert halls and golf courses.
So conservatives rage about who liberals are really serving, and so it goes.
In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address he warned his fellow Americans about the dangers of political parties: “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State …. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind ….
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities ….
“… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
George was right. Passionate politicking has frequently led Americans astray. It inspired Indian wars, lynchings, the Klan, McCarthyism ….
And now the spirit of party is moving us again. The citizens are eager, engaged and enthusiastic, and the candidates and party faithful are avid and determined. But are Americans proceeding with due diligence and restraint?
Clearly not. The Republican party is imploding, and the Democrats can be downright annoying. Clinton keeps bashing Sanders for not supporting every Obama policy, which hardly seems germane, and Sanders keeps knocking Clinton’s Iraq decision, which is long over and done with.
Americans often blame government for their woes, but we are all a part of the process. Citizens complain about the candidates’ unrealistic promises, simplistic sound bites, repetitive talking points, and penchant for insults and accusations. But it is we the people who continue to cheer on, applaud and clamor for the Democrat or the Republican; the party insider or Washington outsider; or the local development critic or fan.
If we want elections that are less about spectacle, spin and political cliques, and more about how to make things better, we have got to engage in – and expect – deeper, more reflective discussions that examine current policies, old ideologies, possible solutions and compromises, and our own assumptions, prejudices and party platforms.
Martha Quillen loves hiking in the high country, where it’s so much easier to find and stay on a good path.