Is America Still Great?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Maarten van den Heuvel
*Updated 2020
President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” stirred national controversy. It caused some citizens to nod in agreement and others to shriek, “It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it!” Journalists and pundits have since clocked thousands of hours attempting to answer the question the slogan posed: Is America great, or in the midst of a great decline? This question is particularly relevant today, given the government’s delayed response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Below, we’ll examine three arguments supporting America’s greatness before the coronavirus hit, and three reasons signaling she’s in decline (especially when the country is leading the world in confirmed cases of Covid-19).


So much winning.


The US was the world’s business leader pre-coronavirus.

Before the world economy practically shut down due to the coronavirus, America was one of the world’s most productive business centers, having produced a GDP per capita of over $65,000 in 2019, up more than $2500 from 2018. The IMD business school ranked the US number one in competitiveness for business, specifically for its efficiency in fostering an environment where enterprise can flourish. Indeed, American businesses have been thriving, as evidenced by their filing the most intellectual patent applications in 2018. (In 2019, American businesses may have slipped to the #2 spot, behind China, but they previously and consecutively held the top position since 1978). America’s prolific productivity positively 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 persists.

Over recent years, many Americans and non-Americans alike may have questioned whether the country’s hallmarks of a functioning democracy – sturdy political institutions, political equality, rule of law, and just about every civil liberty under the sun, are still in place. But it’s not just America; democracy all over the world seems to be in decline. However, within America, even criticism and attacks from the executive office can’t stymie the nation’s vibrant press (it may even bolster it). And even in times of domestic political upheaval and impeachment, democracy has persisted. American 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.  Plus, the state leadership that respective US governors have exhibited to survive and/or combat the current health crisis shows that in times of uncertainty, US democracy is not only functioning but thriving.


America is giving.

America has been consistently giving on both the domestic and international levels. Even despite President Trump’s threats to decrease funding to the UN, America is still the organization’s largest financial donor, having contributed $10 billion in 2018, making the US the underwriter of several laudable missions, including peacekeeping efforts and the care of refugees. And, before President Trump declared a halt to funding of the World Health Organization, America was the organization’s top donor, contributing 20% of the WHO’s total budget.

It’s not just the American government who’s committed to social responsibility – in 2017, American individuals, estates, corporations and foundations gave a total of $410 billion to non-profits and charities, an increase of $20 billion from 2016. Plus, 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!


Even before the coronavirus, America was in bad need of upkeep.

One of the tell-tale signs of a struggling nation is lack of investment. America’s infrastructure is crumbling. A 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. Before the coronavirus pandemic, America also decreased its investments in areas most likely to increase long-term salience, like education and science research. 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.

Health care is another weak point for America. True, America is not the only country to be caught unprepared for the coronavirus health crisis. However, perhaps its current health care system, with high costs and low medical capacity, contributed to the country’s vulnerability.  America has long needed to invest in improving its health care system so that it can better promote health and equality.


America’s middle class is shrinking.

Equality of economic opportunity is a point of national pride in America, but income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s and has accelerated in the past two decades. The top 1% of earners in American have greater wealth than the bottom 90%. Wage stagnation, automation, and globalization have conspired to create the perfect storm for America’s once strong middle class. Wages that used to support one family fail to support a single person; technology has made hundreds of thousands of jobs obsolete; 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 that gives preference to its highest earners will be rewritten any time soon, and income inequality will affect more American families.


Where’s the pride?

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 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. Plus, recent controversy over the zero-tolerance immigration policy has led many people – both nationwide and worldwide – to question whether to be proud of or disappointed in American values.


The Bottom Line: Despite political and health setbacks, America is still a pillar of democracy. Pre-coronavirus, the country boasted prosperous business dealings and an overall generous disposition. The Covid-19 pandemic aside, the country seems to have lost focus on certain issues that warrant prioritization, as evidenced by the younger generation’s steeply declining morale. What do you think? Can America or any country be objectively great, or is greatness defined in the eye of the beholder?

Write a response...
See what else you’re missing
modal image