USA: We Could Have Been Greater
Let’s not minimize what the United States accomplished. We jettisoned feudalism, extended unprecedented freedoms to many, advanced representative government, produced a remarkably large middle class, gave greater scope to individual endeavor than had ever before been available, enshrined religious freedom and attracted millions of people from around the world. We expanded across a vast continent, created impressive levels of national wealth, and, notwithstanding a ghastly Civil War, enjoyed a remarkable level of stability, thanks to a political system able to remedy or alleviate discontent and potentially destabilizing threats.
But let’s acknowledge that America could have been much better. Given its potential, it could have really been great. We possessed vast resources and an energetic, productive population. We could boast of our freedoms, individualism, social mobility and unending opportunities to succeed. Not bound to the past we seemed open to a future unlimited. We were a nation physically secure, unthreatened by neighbors, distant from potential rivals and enemies. What other major nation ever had it this good, so much in command of its own destiny, free to compose its own script?
But we’ve fallen short of our potential. How did that happen? Well the common man and the common woman in America were above all human beings, and, thus inevitably, flawed creatures – selfish, envious, prejudiced, ignorant, aggressive, power hungry, parochial, fearful, petty, avaricious and often self-satisfied. Add to this catalog of human frailty and failure two ineradicable crimes of which America was guilty – African slavery and genocide involving the indigenous population, the latter seeming forgotten, the former a permanent scar whose enduring consequences have cast long and unsettling shadows over our history.
So the United States, potentially great in the abstract, fell short because it was populated by Americans who while they would prove creative, courageous, charitable, selfless, community-minded and kindly, also were fearful, small-minded, power seeking, quick to use force, capable of exploiting others.
As the story of America unfolded decade by decade, the stories we told ourselves, the circumstances we faced, the ideas we accepted, the decisions we made, had real world consequences, sometimes leading to progress, other times narrowing our vision, closing off possibilities, offsetting the natural advantages we as a people had inherited. In the limited space available here we will introduce certain of the foundational blocks (absent nuances) of our country – conceptions, ideologies and tendencies – often, but not always, representing majority opinion, some ennobling, others disabling, which together determined the mixed picture that is our past – and our -present circumstances.
• There was no place for Native Americans. They were primitive, savage, heathen, migratory, preternaturally cruel redskins. They were in the way – served no purpose.
• The United States is a white man’s country. Regrettably, blacks are here but really don’t belong and don’t measure up. They are threatening, prone to violence, criminality and social disintegration. They’ve had over 150 years after slavery to prove themselves, but have generally fallen short.
• As a God-fearing Christian (Protestant) nation we took religion seriously, which often compromised our commitment to the separation of church and state, placed non—Protestants in some jeopardy and thrust non-believers to the margins of society. Religious crusades (revivals) of one sort or another repeatedly convulsed society, whether in behalf of social progress or justice, or by fueling movements against Sabbath openings, saloons, alcohol, vice, pornography, sexuality, godless Communism, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, gay marriage, the teaching of evolution, bans on school prayer or advancing secularism. People of faith have always been a most vocal part of the American conversation.
• Capitalism, free enterprise, private property together are responsible for America’s ascendancy and cannot be placed in jeopardy. The pursuit of monetary gain sparks creativity, commercial enterprise and produces national prosperity. The entrepreneur, capitalist, businessman must be free to pursue material success and to enjoy its benefits. Significant impediments, viz. unions, government ownership, intrusive government regulation, excessive taxation, socialist ideology, unfair foreign competition, threats to private property rights must be identified and strictly limited.
• A strong central government can jeopardize all that’s been achieved in America. It can, if unchecked, undermine liberty, threaten local traditions and self-government through tax policy and widespread regulation, central planning, and, by direct entry into the economy, it can redistribute wealth and increase the risk and freedom of action of business enterprises. The Federal Government can serve as a useful ally and support economic growth, but extreme vigilance is necessary to prevent undue “meddling” and anti-business policies.
• In a nation as wealthy as the United States there should be few who are poor, but alas they are quite numerous, often extending from one generation into the next. Some surely are innocent victims of misfortune, but perhaps more are clearly deficient in a number of ways – undisciplined, unambitious, immoral, lazy, ignorant, alcoholic, without roots in community. Charity may be extended to them, but the state should only provide limited support, certainly not allow them to become comfortable, but rather to move them, if possible, toward self-sufficiency and self-respect.
• White male Anglo-Saxon Protestants have been dominant on the American scene from the beginning, and to this day they remain disproportionately influential and powerful. Everyone else has had to wait in line, accept an “inferior” status, a lesser position and struggle to gain acceptance. Male dominance (across the society) has placed a premium on manliness and mastery, kept women subordinate and subject to abuse and exploitation.
• Around 1900 the United States entered upon the world scene and by the middle of the century became the dominant power around the globe. Challenged at various times by Japan, Germany and Russia, it has fought wars (hot and cold) to defeat them. That led in time to a huge expansion of its military industrial complex; the construction of military bases around the world, enormous expenditures in support of interventions in one nation after another to protect allies, vital national interest and the overseas investments of American globe-spanning corporations. While self-interest motivates America’s world leadership, it has brought about a measure of stability.
In sum, we can say that never before had a nation emerged under such favorable circumstances as outlined previously. And given such obvious advantages, little wonder the US can be rated a success. But with such a head start, why didn’t it turn out better, freer, its bounty enjoyed by many more, been less stratified and less troubled, more unified, more hopeful, more of a model for the world? We’ve attempted herein to address this question. And surely, this is but a start to such a discussion.