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The presidential candidates are pontificating about making America “great.” The Republican candidate in particular has made this a theme of his campaign. Puffing up our alleged greatness is standard political campaign rhetoric. Meaningless sound bites and patriotic cliches are a common campaign strategy. It allows the politicians to avoiding meaningful discussion of actual problems and needed solutions.
There may be good reasons for candidates to avoid specifics. Too often those who did discuss the issues have lost. Policy positions are often complicated and boring. Unfortunately people are motivated by emotion not facts. Too often the platitudes, sound bites, and attack ads work. We get the politics and candidates we deserve.
But Is being great a good national goal? The idea of national greatness is problematic. How do we define being great? Does having the biggest military make us great? Does being the biggest consumer nation make us great? Does building walls make us great? And just when was this golden age when America was “great” in the past?
There were times in the past when the United Sates was admired and emulated. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence inspired many countries to overthrow monarchies in the early 1800’s. The Constitution became the model for similar documents around the world. The Bill of Rights was copied (and expanded upon) in many of the constitutions written since 1789. We helped create the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights. America was once the destination for immigrants seeking opportunity and freedom. The Progressive Era and the New Deal were periods of reform based on these ideals.
I doubt this is what the politicians mean when they pontificate about greatness. I doubt the politicians are calling for a return to the post WWII era when unions were growing, prosperity was spreading, civil rights were expanding, the middle class was growing, and women were gaining more equality. I doubt they are thinking about universal free public education, the Marshal Plan, The GI Bill, Social Security, or the Voting Rights Act as examples of our greatness. But these are some of the many ways we tried to live up to the ideals of democracy, equality, and opportunity for all. This is when we took real, practical actions to “secure the blessings of liberty” for everyone.
The politicians, of course, are merely rehashing simplistic platitudes in an effort to get elected. But even if they were honestly concerned about our world image and building a better country, greatness should not be the goal. Rather it should be the result of doing what is right and needed for our people and the world. We should not care if America is great. We should care about, and work for, a prosperous, peaceful, sustainable, tolerant, and just America.
To do the hard work of building a better country we must have good leadership. Looking at the 2016 candidates one can only wonder, “Is this the best we can do?” We have 320 million people. Where are the successful, knowledgeable, innovative, compassionate, public spirited leaders who care about bringing people together to solve problems? There have to be many people, in all walks of life, all across the country who have proven abilities in creating change. Why are we stuck with a gaggle of arrogant, ideologically hidebound, narcissists?
The current Republican presidential candidate is the prime example. He is the “ugly American” personified. He is an arrogant, ignorant, greedy, con-man and publicity seeker. His business dealings (his supposed strong point) and his behavior in the primary campaign suggest he is simply an obnoxious, egotistical, huckster primarily interested in promoting himself. Nothing in his background, policy pronouncements, and inconsistent campaign statements indicate thoughtful analysis of problems or effective strategy to meet the country’s challenges. Nothing in his background indicates he can bring people together to solve problems despite his self-proclaimed skill as a “deal maker.” But he does have a big mouth! He is a rich TV celebrity, who says stupid things that appeal to misinformed, racist, angry, mostly white males. He attracts more press coverage than the other candidates.
We have had many hack politicians in positions of power throughout our history. We have had many greedy, self-serving, small minded men who did not serve the public well. We have had many backroom, “dark horse” compromises without the experience or competency to do the job. We have had many puppets who danced to the manipulations of the powers behind the scenes. But by any objective standard, Donald Trump is the worst in our history. His candidacy is an embarrassment to the nation (I will document this harsh assessment in future articles).
We can not be “great” or even survive as a nation if we continue to elect the poorest quality leadership. The example of George W. Bush should be instructive. It is not being overly partisan to point out that he was not among the best and brightest of the nation. But the results of his administration’s mismanagement are still being felt. Two unsuccessful wars (still being fought 15 years later), the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and exploding budget deficits were just the major failures. Mediocrity has consequences.
What must we do to improve the quality of our leadership? How do we get better candidates?
Obviously this is a huge topic. Many people are writing and working on improving our democracy with campaign finance reform, overturning the Citizen’s United decision, recruiting better candidates, and many other reforms. But ultimately we as voters must make the changes. We can begin by making sure the worst presidential candidate in our history is soundly defeated.