On August 15, 2018, the Washington Post (and many others) ran a story about something Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, said in a speech. The Washington Post article was entitled, “Andrew Cuomo says America ‘was never that great,’ drawing gasps”. “We’re not going to make America great again; it was never that great,” Cuomo said, drawing audible gasps, apparently out of surprise, and some applause. “We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged.”
“Cuomo’s office soon walked back the comments, assuring that Cuomo actually thinks America is currently great and contrasting that with Trump’s slogan, which requires that America is not. ‘Governor Cuomo disagrees with the president,’ spokeswoman Dani Lever said. ‘The governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality. America has not yet reached its maximum potential.’ Cuomo’s point was about women’s equality. . . .”
“Cuomo’s argument is one to which very few Americans appear to subscribe,” the article said. “A May 2016 poll showed that, while 19 percent of people said America is as great as it has ever been, another 48 percent said it was still great but less so than before. Another 20 percent said it used to be great but isn’t anymore. [Only s]even percent said this country has never been great. .. [Y]ou can bet this is hardly a message [the Democrats] want to carry into the home stretch of the 2018 midterms. And judging by the clarification from his office, not even Cuomo seems to be ready to make this his new slogan.” [https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/08/15/andrew-cuomo-america-was-never-that-great/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee508c4d9c1a.]
On September 1, I listened to the heartfelt and moving tribute Meghan McCain gave at the memorial service in the National Cathedral for her father, the late, senior U.S. Senator from Arizona, John S. McCain III. Tears came to my eyes more than once as I heard her speak through her tears. But she said something in her eulogy that caught me up short. She said, to applause, “America doesn’t need to be made great again. America was always great.” I do not think we can honestly say that America was always great.
I understand that saying America “was never that great” is political poison. Most of us need to believe that America is and was great. We take it as a required token of love for our country. It is the word “never” in Cuomo’s statement that I myself do not agree with. I think America has sometimes been great; whenever it has fought and sacrificed for the highest ideals of liberal democracy, increased justice and improved living conditions for all its citizens, and truly extended a helping hand to others in the world. And it is the word “always” in Meghan McCain’s statement that I cannot agree with.
Even saying that America was not always great, as I do in this article, feels a little unsafe. But my question is why? Why can we not stand to tell and hear the truth about ourselves and our country? Acknowledging the historical truth about our country does not mean we do not love it, any more than acknowledging the truth about ourselves and our families, including our flaws, means we do not love ourselves and them. Are our love for, and pride in, our country so shallow, so fragile, that we must ignore evidence to the contrary to convince ourselves that the United States of America was always great?
The United States undeniably stole land from Native Americans and labor from African slaves, as well as fundamental human rights from both, for much of our nation’s history. We shamelessly enriched those of us who are white by doing so. Why can we not freely face and admit that those wrongs did not make us great? We were not great when we denied women and African-Americans the right to vote. We were not great when we sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. The shame now lies not in admitting those wrongs, but in denying or ignoring them. I agree with a friend who said that the only good reason to keep reminding ourselves of our country’s wrongs is to try to make amends for them and not repeat them in the future. We are not great now when we fail to acknowledge the racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy that are rooted in slavery and continue today in our attitudes, conscious and subconscious, toward people of color – attitudes that cause us to fear and suspect them for their appearance alone, that fail to protect them at all or as fully as white people are protected, that punish and incarcerate them at demonstrably higher rates than white people. We are not great now when we continue to heap even more privilege on those already rich and fail to help those who are poor and disadvantaged.
I think I understand what both Cuomo and Meghan McCain meant. And I don’t think either of them would disagree with this statement: America has often been great in its aspirations. And it has sometimes fallen short of those aspirations in its actions. The ongoing challenge for our country, and for all of us, is never to stop working to make what we do match what we proclaim and hope for in our best moments.