When did America stop being great?

Published 12:15 pm Saturday, July 2, 2016

Happy Fourth of July! Happy Birthday to the great democratic experiment!

240 years after cutting ties with Great Britain’s colonial empire and following the lead of Iceland and Switzerland and establishing a functional democracy, our Independence Day has become an opportunity to gather with friends and family, fire up the grill, jump in the pool and bask in the sunshine.

It is a chance to deck the halls in red, white and blue, shooting off fireworks when night falls and to celebrate what makes our country stand out from the rest.

This includes our commitment to individual freedoms, such as religion, speech and assembly; our insistence in equality among all citizens, regardless of race, class or gender; and our strong sense of justice and morality.

But in recent months, I’ve noticed an unsettling change in the rhetoric of politicians as both candidates ruthlessly pursue the White House. It appears that one party wants to claim the monopoly on patriotism and love of country. “If you’re a leftist,” they claim, “you hate America!” As we hurtle inevitably towards the election in Nov., the right wing has embraced the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

According to this worldview, sometime in the recent past the America we all love has ceased to exist. It has been driven away, disappeared by some nebulous process of growth and change — and therefore, destruction. And the only way we can restore ourselves to our former glory is to put our trust in the right wing politicians as they help us to navigate the flow in time so we can travel back to a golden yesteryear where America was great.

But this begs the question: When did America stop being great?

Was it in 2008 when the housing market crashed and we were plunged into the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression?

Was it in 2001 when the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil took the lives of 2,996 innocent civilians?

Was it in 1996 when a sitting U.S. President had an affair with one of his young interns?

How about in 1974 when a U.S. President was removed from office for being caught spying on his political rivals and using his executive privilege to cover it up?

Did we stop being great when Congress passed the Civil Rights of Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” and we finally fulfilled our long ago promise of “equality and justice for all?”

Were we great in 1954 when gas cost $0.23 a gallon, and Brown v. Board of Education abolished “separate but equal” and afforded the same educational opportunities to every child in the nation? Were we great during the Red Scare of 1947-57, where anyone suspected of communism could be tried for treason, in a situation reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692?

Did we stop being great in 1920 when women were given the right to vote? Did we stop being great when we began the long, arduous process of stripping white Christian men of the superiority that had been codified in law and societal practice in the early to mid-twentieth century?

Or — as I suspect many chanting “Make America Great Again” believe — was it on January 20, 2009 when an Ivy League-educated, African-American man from Illinois assumed the mantle of President of the United States? How far back in time is the campaign to make America great going to take us?

No one has been able to provide a cogent answer. Proponents of the mantra don’t seem to have a clear idea of “when” exactly it is that they’d like to revisit again. They just agree that somehow the country has gone off track; that society has become tainted and we have lost sight of our foundational beliefs. They seem to be remembering fondly an America of a simpler time when milk cost 25 cents a gallon and the most risqué act shown on television was Wally and Beaver disobeying their father on Leave It To Beaver.

As nostalgia is wont to do, they remember all the light, but forget the shadows, remember that college tuition used to be $950 dollars a semester, but forget that black men and women could be sprayed with fire-hoses and arrested, for simply trying to get a milkshake at the same diner their white friends could. All this gazing nostalgically into the past seems to cloud their vision of the present, where we have begun to take steps to correct these injustices.

Conservatives fail to see that liberal Americans still hold the very same values instilled in us all since birth: they believe that all human beings are equal under the sight of God and that America should be a place where everyone, regardless of national origin, economic status or other divisive factors, can achieve greatness. But you can’t go back. The carousel never stops turning. In our clinging to the positives of the past we must remember that a lot of negatives are hidden back there as well.

Yes, change is inevitable and scary. It always feels as if we are leaving something immeasurably valuable behind. But, consider, just consider, what wonders lie ahead of us in the future.

Maybe, just maybe, we can make America great again by stepping forward, instead of looking back.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at walter.francis@tidewaternews.com.