Though Bill Clinton was a far better talker than he was an orator, at least one of his sentences should be carved in stone: “There is nothing wrong with America,” he said in his 1993 Inaugural Address, “that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” That’s a line Andrew Cuomo might want to commit to memory.
The New York governor is in the news for saying on Wednesday that America “was never that great.” He went on to explain that the U.S. “will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged” – while complaining that President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan was “retrospective” and intended to return the country to darker times past.
As political gifts to the Trump 2020 campaign go, it’s hard to think of one so perfectly wrapped. Fox News was all over it. So was Stephen Colbert. For conservatives, the remark is proof of moral ignominy; for liberals, of political stupidity. And it was particularly rich coming from someone whose own campaign slogan, from 2010, was, “Together, we can make New York great again.”
But it’s also a statement more than a few people agree with, not least among progressives Cuomo is trying to woo in his primary campaign against challenger Cynthia Nixon. So it’s worth reminding ourselves of just what it is that really makes America great.
It’s in that Clinton line: A capacity for adjustment, self-correction and renewal, unequaled among the nations and inscribed in our founding charter:
“The consent of the governed.”
“The pursuit of Happiness.”
Other countries rise on strengths that ultimately become their failings, sometimes their downfall. Conquest made Rome vast, proud – and overstretched. Militarism united Germany in the late 19th century only to become the source of its catastrophes in the next century. Top-down authoritarian directives built China’s factory floors and high-speed rail networks. But they also impede the bottom-up flow of information and ideas that makes economies adaptive and creative.
The U.S. has also endured reversals, crises and malaise, and committed its share of crimes. There is an extensive literature, dating to the 1780s and continuing through the present, predicting imminent doom or long-term decline. There’s an equally long literature cataloging America’s many sins, most of them real but very few of them all that particular to us, including slavery, ethnic cleansing, territorial conquest, racism and misogyny.
But the consistent theme of American history has been one of continual overcoming by way of direct recourse to first principles – principles that are timeless and universal, even if they were laid down by hypocrites. It’s how Lincoln resolved the crisis of the house divided. It’s how the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were ratified – along with the 19th. It is the basis for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s how the Obergefell case on marriage equality was decided.
It’s also why a record number of Americans – 75 percent, according to a Gallup poll from June – continue to believe in the benefits of immigration, despite the Trumpian assault. The American birthright belongs, potentially, to everyone. This is unprecedented. Other countries accept migrants on the basis of economic necessity or as a humanitarian gesture. Only in America is it the direct consequence of our foundational ideals.
It’s easy to deprecate some of the puffery and jingoism that often go with affirmations of “American greatness.” It’s also easy to confuse greatness with perfection, as if evidence of our shortcomings is proof of our mediocrity.
But greatness, like happiness, lies less in the achievement than in the striving – and in the question of what we are striving for. Another foundational phrase: “A more perfect Union.” What does that mean? It is both purely subjective and highly purposeful, a recognition of imperfection and the necessity of change.
Elsewhere in the world, religious traditions demand certainty, cultures compel conformity, and political systems demand obeisance. The American tradition rests on pillars of self-questioning, self-actualization and disagreement. This, too, is historically unprecedented.
By coincidence, Cuomo’s remark came just a few days after the death of Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul, whose 1990 speech, “Our Universal Civilization,” has since been widely shared. It concludes with Naipaul’s tribute to “this idea of the pursuit of happiness.”
“It is an elastic idea; it fits all men,” he said. “So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
Want to know what makes America great, governor? Look no further.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service