As the race for the White House accelerates, so too has the loose talk about how America is on the decline. We are hearing a lot about a lack of direction, intestinal fortitude and leadership. To be sure, there is nothing more American than pointing out all the ways our country could be better, but there is nothing more un-American than questioning our nation’s greatness.
Historically, we have always perceived ourselves as world leaders, champions of the right causes and holders of values that should be embraced by all. And yet, presidential candidates continually characterize our current national situation as an echo of a once magnificent land, a mere shadow cast by the setting sun of American global leadership. Is this nation still great?
Without hesitation, I say yes. The vitriolic political rhetoric that suggests America is in freefall is at best partisan pandering and at worst inadvertent country bashing that denies the United States its rightful recognition as a country that has been, is now and will always be great. We continue to witness tremendous American achievements in a number of disciplines.
- Paul Modrich was among this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, an honor won by the United States 51 times.
- Earlier this year, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was the first to fly past Pluto on a mission to collect data on its planetary system.
- Two years ago, the first kidney was grown in vitro in the United States.
My sentiment is passionate and with good reason. These are no small feats and no matter what politicians preach from the stump, America remains a land of great opportunity. We have our challenges, acknowledging discrimination, prejudice, and inequality persist. But it is not the presence of opportunity that defines the American dream—it is the pursuit of opportunity that defines it. What makes us great is that generation after generation chooses to walk the challenging, often-perilous road towards a brighter horizon, no matter the obstacles along the way.
I am an African American, originally from New Jersey. My hometown boasts fewer than 7,600 residents, but when I was growing up during the Civil Rights era, that small-town size did not shield me from racism and bigotry. Under those circumstances in any other country, my life’s opportunities may well have begun and ended with my neighborhood boundaries. Instead, I became an FBI special agent, a governor’s appointee in the nation’s most populous state and later, a presidential nominee to serve in Washington.
In my youth, I learned how hateful Americans can be to each other, seeing the dehumanizing, divisive N-word scrawled on the sidewalk where I waited for the school bus. One could have said America wasn’t great because it was unequal.
But I also learned about dedication and bravery from educators who saw my mind instead of my skin color, from mentors who saw my potential instead of my perceived limitations, and from my family, friends, and colleagues who realized, as I do, that an American life is what one makes of it. Challenges and unfairness exist in every society, but only in ours can those barriers be overcome by focused effort, courage and resilience. Our greatness stems from these virtues. Indeed, it stems from us.
And this is what most politicians are missing: it is not our country that makes us great; it is us who make our country great. Throughout my law enforcement and public safety career, I have seen young people with a similar background as my own assess their lot in life and demand more. In them, I see a refusal to fail, an unquenchable thirst to succeed. That tells me the great nation I know is alive and well.
Even as we are facing substantial challenges in many areas, I have seen no evidence to suggest that my countrymen and women are any less capable, driven, creative or truly great than they were at any other point in our history. Politicians suggesting that the United States’ best days are behind her are actually defaming you, me and the other 320 million of us Americans, and that just doesn’t resonate with what most of us know to be true—that we are great not because of where we live but because of who we are.
Rather than deride our challenges, our next leader might best champion our successes and inspire us to reach higher. That is what we have always done and will do again. It’s what truly makes us great.