Is America Still Great?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Maarten van den Heuvel
Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” stirred national controversy, causing some citizens to nod in agreement and others to shriek “it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.” Journalists and pundits have clocked thousands of hours attempting to answer the question the slogan posed: Is America great or in the midst of a great decline?
Below, we’ll examine three arguments supporting America’s greatness, and three reasons that signal she’s in decline.


So much winning.


The US is the world’s business leader.

The US is by far the world’s most productive business center, producing a GDP per capita of over $57,000. The IMD business school ranked the US number one in competitiveness for business for its efficiency in fostering an environment where enterprise can flourish. Indeed, American businesses are thriving, as evidenced by their filing the most international patents last year, surpassing runner up Japan’s filings by more than 20 percent. America’s prolific productivity impacts the entire global economy. As the European Central Bank has noted, for most countries, the United States is their “first trading partner.”


American democracy is thriving.

America boasts all the hallmarks of a functioning democracy – sturdy political institutions, political equality, rule of law, and just about every civil liberty under the sun. Even criticism from the executive office can’t stymie the nation’s vibrant press (it even seems to bolster it). Democracy does not only speak to political realities, but to cultural ones as well. America excels at incorporating disparate voices and interests into its varied fabric; the far left, far right, and everyone in between have equal protections for expression and assembly, protections which are by no means guaranteed in other countries.


America is giving.

America has been consistently giving on both the domestic and international levels. The UN’s largest financial contributions come from the US, making the US the underwriter of several laudable missions, including peacekeeping efforts and the care of refugees. And it’s not just the American government who’s committed to social responsibility – in 2013, a Gallup poll revealed that 83 percent of Americans had given to charity in the last year, and a study conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation ranked the US as number one in charitable donations by percentage of GDP. Through its generous philanthropy efforts, the United States sets a high bar for paying it forward.


America, Sad!


America is in bad need of upkeep.

One of the telltale signs of a struggling nation is lack of investment. America’s infrastructure is crumbling. The most recent infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s airports, roadways, and dams an overall grade of “D.” Poor infrastructure has real consequences – lack of maintenance leads to increased accidents and inefficiency that cost billions of dollars. America has also decreased its investments in areas most likely to increase its long-term salience, like education and science research (Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would cut science funding by 17 percent and it reduced the education budget by 13.5 percent). In an economy that is increasingly dependent on foreign investment, one wonders who will be tempted to invest in a country that hasn’t the confidence to invest in itself.


America’s middle class is shrinking.

Equality of economic opportunity is a point of national pride in the US, but income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s and has accelerated in the past two decades. The top 20% of earners in American society possess 90% of the nation’s wealth. Wage stagnation, automation, and globalization have conspired to create the perfect storm for America’s once strong middle class. Wages which used to support one family fail to support a single person, technology has made hundreds of thousands of jobs obsolete, and competition from cheap international labor forces drive American salaries down. In a political system where money determines legislation with more regularity than the public will, it is unlikely that a tax system which preferences its highest earners will be rewritten any time soon, and income inequality will affect more American families.


Where’s the pride?

A Gallup poll reported that America’s largest voting block, Millennials, do not self-identify as proud Americans. As the first generation to be less prosperous than their parents, one can hardly blame them. Beyond dim financial prospects, Millennials cite a host of reasons for their lack of patriotism, from expensive, unsuccessful wars to racial tensions. Millennials aren’t the only citizens whose pride fails to stir for red, white and blue –  the amount of self-described “extremely patriotic” Americans has decreased by 14 percent since 2001. Discouragingly, a Pew poll recently reported that America’s traditionally high esteem abroad is also faltering, with favorable views of the US down from 69 percent to 49 percent since 2016.


Bottom lines: On what rubric does one base the measure of a country’s greatness? On the amount of legislation it passes, or the happiness of its citizens, or the distribution of wealth? Can America or any country be objectively great, or is greatness defined in the eye of the beholder?

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