Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, told a stunned crowd on Wednesday that the United States of America “was never that great.” He followed that flat-footed line with a series of bromides about how America will “reach greatness” when mankind ceases to stereotype, discriminate, and degrade one another, but the damage was done. Cuomo’s primary opponent, the progressive insurgent and former actress Cynthia Nixon, mocked the governor for failing in the attempt to mimic “what a progressive sounds like.” That is a telling admission. Presumably, Nixon’s idealized “progressive” would more adroitly explain why American greatness is overstated.
You might think that President Donald Trump would take the opportunity presented by Cuomo’s faceplant to wrap himself in the flag, but he opted only to mock the Empire State’s executive for “having a total meltdown.” The president’s instincts are equally revealing. After all, the phrase “Make America Great Again” concedes that America is, at present, not all that great. This is an earnest conviction on Trump’s part.
In accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Trump painted a portrait of a country that was weak and failing. Shackled by political correctness, riddled with violent crime, beset by dangerous migrants and violent refugees, subverted by craven politicians, and plagued by a crisis of confidence in its mission; Trump’s vision of the country was best summed in the most memorable line from his first inaugural address: “American carnage.” Just 19 months later, the president insists that the nation has been made whole again, which is more a function of his competence than the national character.
These two provisory expressions of patriotism share more commonalities than distinctions. Everyone has their own definition of patriotism, and love of country should not be blind. Unwavering reverence is an expression of faith, not gratitude. Patriotism must know prudent limits, or it may come to justify venality and violence. But patriotism is distinct from an understanding of what makes the United States a great and exceptional nation.
American greatness is established in its Constitution. The nation’s founding charter endures because of two conditions that prevailed at the close of the 18th Century. First, the collection of sovereign states that hammered out a national government was careful to premise a prospective Union on decentralization and federalism. That diffusion preserves local social and legal customs and, thus, domestic harmony. Second, the Constitution’s framers operated on the assumptions espoused by the Enlightenment’s leading luminaries, among them Lockean notions of legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed. These two assumptions led James Madison to conclude in Federalist 51 that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority” even while “all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society.”
It was also in Federalist 51 in which Madison articulated a truth about human nature that has vexed prideful technocrats since the dawn of time: Mankind is flawed. The species cannot be perfected. Thus, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The revolutionary movements that followed America’s founding held this capitulatory revelation in low esteem. They sought to create “ideal” societies in which mankind’s contradictions and baser impulses would dissolve into a new social consciousness. It is no coincidence that those “ideal” revolutionary societies eventually descended into bloodshed, oppression, and disunion while America endured.
The Constitution’s amendments are equally exceptional. With a few lamentable deviations, the amendments are a set of negative rights that proscribe governmental action rather than establish that which the government can do. That is a paradigmatic triumph; it established as America’s baseline ethos the idea that human freedoms not expressly enumerated in the Constitution are implied. They do not flow from the beneficence of some far-off potentate. They are God-granted. The concept of unenumerated rights is as revolutionary today as it was in the 18th century, and it remains an alien notion outside the Anglophonic world.
America is capable of astonishing violence and repression, but it equally adept at reconciliation and renewal. That capacity is rooted in Americans’ remarkable facility for compromise. The story of the United States is, in many ways, a story of compromise, and not all of those compromises are worthy of celebration. The facility Americans have for negotiation and concession has, however, forged a government and kept it. It is what has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural intermixing in human history. It is what fortifies its incredible capitalist dynamism. And its commerce remains the greatest vehicle for achieving equality, meritocracy, and human flourishing ever devised.
So much of what America’s critics lament about the country’s inherent flaws—its hostility toward collectivism, the ruthlessness of its entrepreneurial spirit, its manic bouts of isolationism and extroversion on the world stage, and the tensions between old and new immigrants—are outgrowths of the traits that make it extraordinary. The nation’s commitment to pluralism, egalitarianism, and unity around shared principles rather than cultural, tribal, or subnational bonds is what makes America unique among nations. It will never stop striving to achieve the ideals of its founding; ideals are, after all, often unattainable. But its shared creed is the North Star toward which the United States has looked for a quarter millennium.
All these things that make America great are hardly immutable traits, and some careless future generation may one day abandon them. But despite America’s weakness for fad and experimentation, those fundamental tenets have proven resistant to change. As Jonah Goldberg observed in Suicide of the West, Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” cannot be improved upon. Any effort to amend that claim would be a regression to a more primitive state. That and the many other gifts that the founding generation left behind ensured that the United States was a uniquely magnificent nation on day one. Don’t let any politician tell you otherwise.