Politalking: Why “#americawasnevergreat,” and arguments like it, won’t work. (Even if they are true.)   Leave a comment

I’m dusting off my opinions to write about a sentiment I’ve seen going around lately. More specifically, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently made waves with the below statement on August 15th:

“We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great. We have not reached greatness, we will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged, we will reach greatness when discrimination and stereotyping against women, 51 percent of our population, is gone and every woman’s full potential is realized and unleashed and every woman is making her full contribution.”

Now, I agree with the sentiment. I even think it was worded well, for the most part. But the issue I, and many others, took with what he said was the statement at the beginning: “America was never great.”

Cuomo is not the only person I’ve seen make this statement. I have seen it pop up on protest signs and on social media, as a pushback against Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”. I totally understand wanting to push back against blind nationalism, and so I understand why the argument developed and why it can appeal to certain people.

Now, I don’t agree with the position that America was never great, and I feel I can make a strong argument as to why. But I’m not going to make that argument in this post. (Maybe as a follow-up.) Instead, I want to talk about why I think statements like this are not going to convince the majority of Americans, and how the same ideas can be stated in a much more appealing way.

First, I need to provide a summary of  Jonathan Haidt’s research into morality and politics. I’m going to briefly summarize it but I highly suggest you read his book, The Righteous Mind, and watch his TED talk.  His research entails looking at the basis of the moral values of liberal-minded people and conservative-minded people and how they differ. As he summarized in his book, he posits there are five moral foundations:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • In-group/Loyalty
  • Authority/Respect
  • Purity/Sanctity

(Side note: He also posits there is a sixth (liberty), but the 5 are the main ones accepted in moral foundations theory, and are what I am basing my argument on. I do actually agree the sixth foundation exists, but doesn’t apply to this argument.)

His research found conservatives were equally sensitive to all five axes, whereas Liberals only scored high on the first two. These general trends may not apply to any particular individual, it is a useful framework to break down why this argument is ineffective.

The statement, “America was never great”, came from liberal arguments, and it makes sense why people on the left wouldn’t have any issue with it. Throughout history, America has caused lots of harm to its citizens, and hasn’t had the best track record of caring for the downtrodden. On top of that, we have had a lot of unfairness throughout our history; look at slavery or how we treated Japanese Americans in World War 2. Even nowadays we have rampant wealth inequality, and only recently extended equal rights to gays and lesbians. Viewing things from this lens, the statement seems fine to me.

However, this argument doesn’t acknowledge the other 3 moral foundations, and one could argue it goes directly against them. It insults the in-group (Americans) by stating their country is mediocre, and always has been. It is disrespectful, as it ignores what America has done to make the world a better place. Finally, it challenges the orthodoxy of America being a shining example to the rest of the world. From the lens of a conservative world view this is a bad argument at best, and an insult at worst.

The United States of America has issues, and I don’t think anyone would disagree. Almost everyone can think of some law we need to reform, or problem we need to solve. If we find a way to frame the argument in a way appeals to the most people, we might be able to actually make progress towards fixing things instead of yelling at each other on the internet. I am going to attempt to do so below:

A short, slogan like example would be:

“Make America Even Greater.”

This counters Trump’s sentiment (America is no longer great) without negative framing, and still shows we need to improve.

A slightly longer version would be:

“America is great because we are always improving our country. Let’s work hard to make it great for all Americans!”

Again, it focuses on improving our country, but doesn’t insult it in the process. It also combines everyone into the same in-group of American, instead of Republican vs. Democrat.

Finally, a longer form:

“America is a great country, built on ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Throughout history, Americans young and old have worked hard to make these ideals a reality that we all can share. Through our hard work, we are an example to the world of freedom and achievement. We can look around and see our accomplishments, while still accepting have more work to do. When our nation works together, we can accomplish whatever we put our minds to. So lets work together to make America even greater than we’ve ever been!”

This example (albeit a little grandiose) shows respect to the USA, asks us to all be one group, and pats us on the back for the good we’ve done so far. It still hits on improving things, and it could easily lead into listing off problems, as it has primed people to be more open.

By re-framing the sentiment in a positive light, you avoid people getting defensive. Instead of arguing whether America is good or bad, you get to have the important discussions: how to fix what is broken and improve what isn’t. Instead of fighting, we actually might cooperate with each other for a change.

Now, if you do agree that America is never great, feel free to keep using the argument. I disagree with you, but you have the right to say it. But I hope I have shown you why this argument fails to convince conservatives and, more importantly, moderates and independents. If that’s your goal, then I hope my advice will help you make more convincing arguments. If not, you probably stopped reading by now, but have fun being angry on the internet.

Thank you for reading,


Posted 08/24/2018 by Shay in Politalking

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