The American revolutionaries of 1776 declared democratic government as existing to preserve the right “to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all its citizens. We soon impressed the world by our commitment to achieving those lofty goals. This is no longer the case.
The nascent United States became renowned for its social mobility. America was unlike existing societies in which people were locked into the class they happened to be born into whatever their individual talents. An outstanding example of American mobility is Greek America. The vast majority of the immigrants of the early 1900s were semi-literate, impoverished farmers with no advanced skills. Although they had to overcome many hurdles, as of 2021, Greek America is one of the nation’s most prosperous communities. Greek-Americans are now visible at the highest levels of government, corporate America, academia, entertainment, medicine, the military, and other fields.
Today’s newcomers to America are not as fortunate. Trickle-down economics and the slow evaporation of the middle class have not served them well. The United States now ranks a drab 27 in international rankings of a nation’s social mobility.
The free public education pioneered by a mass movement in mid-19th century America earned us the envy of the world. By the 1950s, a high school diploma had become the national standard with very low-cost community colleges and technical schools easily accessible for more advanced learning. Complementing the free public school system was the establishment of free public libraries, offering access to the world’s literature for even the poorest Americans.
Another massive social movement in the late 1800s formed around preserving the environment. Developers wanted to build in the Grand Canyon, cattlemen wanted more land for their herds, and oil companies wanted to drill wherever they wished, even at the cost of ruining the environment. Present Teddy Roosevelt, a fan of wild life and hunting, responded by creating seven national parks in 1901. That number has grown to over a hundred. The parks continue to be well-marinated. National and international public support for them has soared. Recently, there has there has been renewed pressure to open some park areas and Native American tribal lands to use by private enterprise, but they have not been very successful.
American health care innovations have been extraordinary. The Papp smear, a polio vaccine, treatment for AIDS, and enhanced use of penicillin altered medical practices worldwide. Sensational progress in heart surgery continues at a steady pace. The bitter side of the health coin is we spend twice as much on healthcare than any other nation, but we have declined to a mediocre 27th ranking in worldwide evaluations of healthcare and a dismal 46th in life expectancy. Desperate public demands for reform have not been met.
Having scrimped on funding school repairs, we now have backlogs of postponed repairs that threaten the safety of students and teachers. Many public schools also lack computers and other equipment essential to modern educators. Since the 1970s the costs of a college education have skyrocketed. Many Americans graduate with student debt that often takes much of their working lifetimes to pay off. One consequence is that globally we rank #14 in education.
Beginning in the nineteenth century American manufacturing and American inventions dominated the world economy. Fifty years later we were the leader in artificial intelligence and invented internet communications. Our social media continues our cultural domination but masks our falling behind other nations in basic technology. Our cell phones are woefully inferior to those in Europe and Asia. We have become ‘also rans’ in areas such as utilizing alternative energy.
With a few exceptions such as building aircraft and heavy equipment such as farm tractors and bulldozers, our manufacturing system has become anemic. Foreign firms now dominate many essential industries once dominated by American firms. China, for example, manufactures all the subway cars in NYC and all the locomotives that power our trains. Moreover, we are dependent on Taiwan for the micro-chips essential to the emerging electronic-oriented world.
A tragic failure of American democracy has been its inability to overcome racial bias against people of African origins. A civil war and a century of bloody struggles have failed to establish existential equality for African Americans. Our prisons hold about the same number of black inmates today as the number of slaves in 1860. But there have been real improvements. The majority of Americans overcame any racial qualms they retained and elected a black male to a two-term American presidency (2008-2016) and a black female to the vice-presidency in 2020. Either would have sounded preposterous if predicted in the 1950s.
The United States has the resources and the positioning to regain command in many economic and social areas. To do so requires some humility. We must study superior social and economic programs of other democratic nations and adjust our policies accordingly. To do otherwise, cedes the future to China and its totalitarian culture.