JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES
One of the American presumptive presidential candidates has been creating a big nationalist fuss about ‘Making America Great Again’. Somehow, according to this interpretation, the country’s just not given the respect it had in the past, perhaps in the 60s and 70s, when the Boomers were growing up, or maybe even going back to 1945 and the end of the Cold War. Maybe it was in some mythical era when the country was the big boy on the block, 1900 perhaps, or 1920.
I have some problem with this interpretation of America’s glorious recent or even not-so-recent past. I seem to recall when the Russians got the A-bomb and then the H-bomb that there was a fear-ridden outing of communists and suspected subversives the land. Then Sputnik showed there was a missile gap, followed by the embarrassment of Fidel and Cuban missile crisis. Was the Vietnam War the time when America was great? Maybe when the Iran hostage crisis was followed by the Iran-Contra affair? Maybe it was great under the Clintons, when the USSR was gone and Al-Qaeda had not risen, but no, that suggests that Hillary might just continue the family’s streak of luck. No, it must have been great when George W. landed on that aircraft carrier and said ‘Mission accomplished!’ in Iraq. No, that didn’t work out so well, so far.
Maybe it is the grudging realization that, ever since the last moonshot brought pictures of the ‘lonely blue marble’ hanging there in space, the world has begun to intrude on America. The world is made up of 7.4 billion people and less than 5% of these are American, and maybe half of this percentage is black, Latino, Chinese, Arab or whatever. Maybe the country is still the richest of them all, but when 19 out of 20 people in the world are foreigners, it can be bothersome. Everybody wants a piece of the American action. And when a billion people are crossing borders each year and there are over 100,000 air flights each day, isn’t this globalization thing getting out of hand? When America was great, things didn’t get out of hand.
Maybe the argument is an economic one. After all, the country has slipped a bit with the rise of China, Mexico and all those sweatshops in South Asia. According to the latest data I found, in 1960, the US accounted for 30.1% of the world GDP (on a constant dollar basis, that is, with inflation taken out) and by 2014, the country had slipped to 25.4%. This means that in 54 years, the rest of the world had caught up at the rate of about 1% per decade. Of course, in 1960, war-torn Europe was barely on its feet and China was about to embark on its ‘Cultural Revolution’, so maybe the 1960 proportions were a bit exaggerated. Even so, this relative decline, if carried forward another 54 years to 2070, implies America by then will have slipped to 20% of world GDP, roughly about twice as large as the Chinese share is today. Hardly problematic, given that the size of the American economy almost tripled in that time –period after 1960.
Is this need for ‘greatness’ just a hankering by old boomers for their own youth, projected onto the present? A world where things were simpler — no social media, no ethnic or sexual identity minorities, no spoken Spanish or hajibs in the mall, but with an enemy like the USSR, whom you could relate to, it being a real country with nuclear weapons and not a lot of bearded terrorists causing havoc and death. Not that there aren’t a lot of violent deaths otherwise, but those are just caused by real Americans shooting themselves up.
And then there are all those people running around telling industry to clean up its act and worrying about warming and rising oceans, making us sort garbage and slipping metric in on America through pop bottles and foreign imports. People can’t smoke cigarettes any more but marijuana is legal. Back then, there used to be ‘cheap Japanese junk’ in the stores; now it is Chinese or Indonesian or African junk. Japanese stuff is first-class. Our hard drugs used to come from Afghanistan, now there are local labs making really ‘killer’ stuff. None of that was around when the country was great.
Finally, there are immigrants. Americans are welcoming people to immigrants, as long as they aren’t too obvious. There were race riots in the 1840s, but those were against the Irish. Then, in the 1850s, the Know-Nothings hated both the Irish and a lot of the incoming Germans because they were Catholic. Some (too many) Chinese and Japanese came into the West. Not good then, OK now. Then there were the Russians and Poles in the early 1900s, a lot of whom were Jews. America put a stop to all that in 1920 and it was not until the end of World War II that a new batch of Europeans, DPs (displaced persons) came in, but not too many. The North had the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the 1950s, which did not go down well at the time.
Since then, the size of the migrations was not too noticeable until the 1990s, when illegal Mexicans and others began coming in large numbers. Ten years ago they may have come over the border in the desert Southwest, but that has pretty well stopped. Even so, a ‘Great America’ needs a wall on the border to keep those people out, no matter that today the numbers of illegals that come in by air as tourists and overstay their visas is much larger than the numbers of poor Mexicans wading the Rio Grande. A wall, Israeli-style, is what we need.
It is really hard for me to define what this ‘greatness’ is that America has lost. Maybe my imagined list of grievances and lost worlds points to what some of the electorate feels needs to be done to restore it. Don’t worry about the facts. Great people will know greatness when they see it.
Copyright Jim McNiven 2016
James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.
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