How to make America great again
Making a great America is a driver of American politics. People wear MAGA hats, short for Make America Great Again. So what made America great?
First, George Washington had American troops vaccinated against smallpox in the Revolutionary War. Smallpox didn’t lay American troops low, which helped them win against a bigger, stronger enemy. George had his faults – he owned slaves – though he turned against slavery and his will freed those he owned. But children like me were vaccinated against smallpox and carried the characteristic circular scar on our shoulders for years – you don’t want to know what smallpox did to its victims.
Second, we were a small population with no ability to exert power abroad. But the country had no restrictions on immigration, none – instead, states sought immigrants to build their economies. They came from all over the world, bringing their languages with them, and learned English in school, in the Army and by mixing with those here already – my parents, your parents, almost everybody’s parents.
Their principal port of entry was New York City. They flowed up the Hudson Valley to the Erie Canal and the rail lines that followed on the same route. Then they flowed west, building Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota particularly, and then down the Ohio River, opening up the Midwest. American industry followed the immigration route. What we think of as the rustbelt was the powerhouse of the country. Troy, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago were industrial cities among many others along the route – indeed central New York was wealthy. By the beginning of World War I, we had the population of a major power and needed it to fight that battle and the Second World War as well.
In other words, vaccines and immigration were crucial to making America great.
We now face many worldwide threats, especially China. They’ve been threatening to overwhelm almost all their neighbors with a population more than three times our size. Once China’s government threw off the limits of communism and empowered their population, they developed the economic and military power consistent with a population of over a billion people.
Obama’s “pivot” to China was both brilliant and inadequate. Brilliant because the agreement he negotiated would have kept us in the loop and included most of the Pacific in a trade agreement that limited China. Inadequate because the trade agreement posed problems for American workers that weren’t dealt with. China now matches most of our military power and would in fact overwhelm us too in any distant conflict.
Meanwhile, Russia and Belarus are weaponizing immigration to destabilize western Europe, the EU, NATO, and us. Think what it would mean if we invited the refugees, and continued the 19th and 20th century project of building our population, industrial base and military power.
The MAGA folks are doing exactly the reverse. They ignore our history while claiming to celebrate it. They ignore the contribution of immigration, African-Americans and people of color to the size and power of the U.S. and its economy. They ignore the contribution of public health, clean water and vaccinations. They ignore how ending slavery and segregation revitalized the South and how the Civil Rights and feminist movements energized the country.
How should we make America great again? Educate the MAGA folk; wake them up! And may our Thanksgivings include the blessings brought by public health and immigrants.
— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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