Published January 15, 2017
Great is a word many politicians use to describe our country. In his 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” Hillary Clinton responded by telling her supporters that America has always been great. And Cory Booker, an African American senator from New Jersey, in his endorsement of Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, acknowledged that in our foundations, Natives are referred to as savages, women are never mentioned and black Americans only counted as 3/5th of a person. But he concluded that section of his speech by saying, “But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don’t detract from our nation’s greatness.”
So what is their definition of great? Apparently, it is a definition that both Democrats and Republicans agree existed throughout our history. And it seems this “greatness” is not affected by our racism, sexism or bigotry. And somehow, the greatness of our founding documents, which explicitly contain the offensive and exclusive language, is not impacted either.
So how is America’s greatness defined?
The Oxford Dictionary defines great as “of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average.” And Merriam-Webster defines great as “chief or preeminent over others.” Both dictionaries define great in relation or comparison to something or someone else.
So, comparatively, where is the United States of America great? At what do we excel above all others?
Perhaps our greatness is found in our democracy? In July 2016, Paul Ryan claimed that the United States was the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. Is that where our greatness lies? Since the end of the most recent election, the Electoral College, a constitutionally-mandated component of our democracy, has come under renewed scrutiny.
The framers of our constitution faced a challenge; the land encompassing their proposed Union was large and communication was poor. They did not have much confidence that the average citizen could be properly educated on the issues and candidates to make an informed vote. So they proposed that the President be elected through an electoral college. The argument was that a few informed electors could represent the vote of the people in their states as well as act as a safeguard against poor choices based on inadequate information (Time – The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists). The framers of the Constitution also argued over how representation in the states should be counted. The south, where 40% of the population was enslaved, wanted to include slaves in the total count (Smithsonian – The Electoral College has been divisive since day one). This seemed unfair to the more densely populated north, some of whom did not want to count slaves at all, as they were treated as property (Michael Karlman – The Framers Coup). This disagreement ultimately resulted in the racist compromise which counted black slaves as 3/5th human, and was written into Article I Section II of the United States Constitution.
Our nation’s continued reliance on an archaic system that is rooted in racism, sexism and economic privilege has resulted in two of our last three “democratically-elected” Presidents actually being losers of the national popular vote, with our current President-elect, Donald Trump, losing by a whopping 2.86 million votes. That is correct, 2.86 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. Yet, because of the way democracy within our Constitutional Republic is expressed, Donald Trump won the election. By any meaningful comparison, our modern-day reliance on the antiquated electoral college cannot seriously be considered an example of great democracy.
How about our Health care? Doesn’t America have great health care? It may be true that we have some of the top doctors in the world, but our delivery of, and access to, their services seems to be lacking. According to a report by the Common Health Fund, “In 2014 the U.S. Health System ranked last among eleven industrialized countries on measures of access, equity, quality, efficiency, and healthy lives.” And according to an article by Hagop Kantarjian in US News and World Reports, the 2013 Institute of Medicine Report “ranks the U.S. near last among 17 high-income nations in several categories ranging from infant mortality and low birth weight to life expectancy.“ Below are several other reports and indexes which also give low rankings to health care in the United States.
How about Education? Is not education in the United States great? Once again, we may have some of the top educational institutions in the world, but our overall educational system is extremely average or even sub-par. “The most recent PISA results, from 2012, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science.” (Pew Research)
How about in minimizing violence and ensuring the personal safety of our citizens? Certainly, with our obsession over security, policing and the strength of our military, we must be great at keeping our citizens safe? As it turns out, that is not the case either. According to a CBS News report Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries.
Well, how about freedom? Surely the United States of America is great at freedom? President Dwight Eisenhower said “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” (WikiQuote)
This quote makes it striking that for a country which trumpets its great value for freedom, the United States leads the globe in incarceration rates. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States incarcerates people at a rate of 693 per 100,000. That is by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, with second place falling to Turkmenistan (583 per 100,000). And the US rate is more than 5 times higher than most other countries.
Diego Arene-Morley, president of Brown University Students for Sensible Drug Policy said “There are more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850,” (Politifact)
- The Census of 1850 showed that 872,924 male African-American slaves over age 15 lived in the United States at that time.*
- According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 526,000 African-American men serving time in state or federal correctional facilities in 2013. (That’s 37 percent of the overall 1.5 million imprisoned men.)*
- There were 877,000 African-American men on probation in 2013, according to the bureau. And there were 280,000 African-American male parolees.*
- In total, there were about 1.68 million African-American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013, 807,076 more than the number of African-American men who were enslaved in 1850.*
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which “abolished” slavery, states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In the United States, incarceration is the new slavery. Making freedom a horrible measure of America’s greatness.
So comparatively, where does our country excel?
1. Military spending.
The Peter G Peterson Foundation reported that at $596 Billion, the United States spends more on military and defense than the next seven countries combined ($567 Billion – China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France, Japan), and according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spends nearly as much as the next 14 countries combined. (source: Washington Post)
2. Energy and resource consumption.There really is nothing left to say. Without a doubt, in comparison, our military spending is great.
Americans represent 5% of the global population but we consume between 25-30% of the earth’s resources. Based on the Global Footprint Network’s report, an article by National Geographic stated “If everyone lived like the average American, the Earth’s annual production of resources would be depleted by the end of March.”
It is true, in comparison, the U.S. is one of the greatest at over-consuming the earth’s resources.
3. Income Inequality
Another report by Pew Research states “before accounting for taxes and transfers, the U.S. ranked 10th in income inequality. But after taking taxes and transfers into account, the U.S. had the second-highest level of inequality, behind only Chile.”
I think Bernie Sanders was on to something, in comparison; the United States of America is great at income inequality.
4. Mass Incarceration of Minorities
This is another category where the United States of America excels. As stated above, at 693 per 100,000, our national incarceration rate is already 5 times higher than most countries. But those numbers get even worse when broken out by race/ethnicity (Prison Policy Initiative).
Blacks………………..2,306 per 100,000
Hispanics………………831 per 100,000
American Indians…..895 per 100,000
Of course, whites in the United States are incarcerated at rates much lower than the national average (450 per 100,000).
So once again, in comparison, the United States is great at incarcerating its people of color.
5. Military Bases on Foreign Soil
A 2015 story in Politico reported that “despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.”
Yes. Comparatively, the US is great at building military bases on foreign soil.
The United States of America was founded on colonialism. Using a Doctrine of Discovery, European nations flocked to the New World to setup colonies for the purpose of exploiting, profiting from and subjecting the people and resources of this continent. Stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, ethnic cleansing, Jim Crow laws, manifest destiny, Indian removal, massacres, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, etc. The history of our nation is littered with wars, laws, attitudes and leaders deeply rooted in colonialism.
The definition of colonialism is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”
Colonialism requires a strong military, both in terms of spending as well as presence. And by definition, a colonial nation will exploit and oppress people (including its own citizens) as well as disproportionately consume resources. The characteristics of colonialism are precisely where the United States of America excels. Our military spending, energy and resource consumption, income inequality, incarceration rates of people of color, and number of military bases on foreign soil, dwarfs the rest of the globe. There is little doubt about it, when politicians refer to America’s historical greatness, what they mean is our colonialism.
Hillary Clinton was right. America has always been colonial.
Cory Booker was right. The bigotry and racism expressed in our founding documents has not diminished our colonialism in the least.
And Donald Trump campaigned to be the President who restores all momentum our colonialism may have lost since the Civil Rights Movement and during the 2 terms of our first Black President. Armed with a venomous Twitter account, authoritarian attitudes towards political opponents and news agencies, threats of a renewed nuclear arms race, proposals for punitive and isolating tax and trade policies, and a cabinet with a combined net worth greater than an entire third of American households, Donald Trump is intent to do whatever it takes to make America colonial again.
But what if we don’t want to be colonial?
Times are changing. Millennials are now the largest voting bloc in the country. They grew up in a world more interconnected and diverse than any generation before them. They are graduating from educational institutions and moving into the work place and broader society. But they are finding long established colonial divisions in regards to race, sexual identity, religion and class that make little sense to them. They are shucking the traditional values of individualism, consumerism, exceptionalism and institutionalized religion that have long been held dear by our nation. Millennials appear less inclined to embrace characteristics of colonialism and seem to lean more towards values of pluralism.
An antidote to colonialism.
Pluralism is defined as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” Our founding documents contain veiled references to pluralism, but unfortunately, the Founding Fathers had little value for it. Their values were rooted in colonialism.
In his final State of the Union, President Obama addressed our nation’s need for a new politics. He quoted the US Constitution saying, “’We the People.’ Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people.”
Now that sounds beautiful, and I truly believe many Americans agree with his statement. But the problem is, as a nation, we have never officially recognized that “We the people” means “all the people.” The Founding Fathers did not believe it. The Civil War and the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments did not result in our nation recognizing that “We the People” meant “all the people.” The 13th Amendment still condoned types of slavery, and Section II of the 14th Amendment specifically excluded natives and women. Even Abraham Lincoln did not believe “We the people” meant “all the people”, as is evidenced by his quote which is hanging in the museum at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”Nationally, we have never agreed that “We the People” means “all the people.”
Our current President-elect Donald Trump, also does not believe it. Throughout his life and during his campaign, Donald Trump has made it very clear that “We the People” does not fully include Muslims, immigrants from the south or women.
Our founding documents may contain hints at pluralism, but unfortunately the Founding Fathers had little value for it. Pluralism is not a melting pot, it is a mosaic. The image of a melting pot is a reference to assimilation, making everything like the dominant. A mosaic requires maintaining distinctiveness, appreciating differences, and celebrating diversity.
Over the next 4 years President Trump will bombard us with his visions for restoring America’s “greatness.” It will sound attractive, but we must remember, comparatively and historically, our country’s greatness is rooted in colonialism.
We live in a world that every day, through technology, is becoming smaller and more interconnected. And colonialism is not sustainable, nor is it good global citizenship. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Perhaps, we can stop nostalgically yearning for, and working to restore, America’s past colonial greatness, and instead focus our attention to simply making our country more humane, more democratic, more equal and more responsible citizens of our increasingly diverse, interconnected and interdependent world.
Mark Charles (Navajo) serves as the Washington DC correspondent for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog “Reflections from the Hogan.” His writings are regularly published by Native News Online in a column titled “A Native Perspective” which addresses news directly affecting Indian Country as well as offering a Native perspective on national and global news stories. Mark is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram .