This election is revealing not only the greatness of democracy but the greatness of the American people. Now go vote.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I have traveled to more than 70 countries. In 2016 alone, I have been on six continents. I have never been to a place that was not endowed with people, history, culture, or other qualities that did not recommend it — even the roughest of places in the roughest of times. The world is like that. It’s not a bad place.
Yet every time I return home to the United States, I feel a surge of pride and joy. There is no place else I would rather live, no place with so much to recommend it. From natural splendors to economic opportunities, from personal freedoms to the riches of our cultural mosaic, this is a wonderful country, and it’s getting better all the time.
I know that’s not a popular point of view in some quarters these days. If you’ve listened to much of the rhetoric of this election year, you would think we were on our knees. The slogan of one of our major political parties at the moment is “Make America Great Again,” implying that we are not great now, that we have lost our mojo. But I would argue that not only are we still great; we are greater than ever.
In fact, we are at a special moment in our history.
Purely objectively, we are richer than ever, more powerful than ever, our people live longer than ever, and they are healthier and better educated than ever. We are still the No. 1 destination for immigrants from around the world and the No. 1 destination for students seeking higher education. We still produce more patents than anyone, are home to more capital than anyone, foster creativity and entrepreneurship better than anyone.
Are we flawed? Deeply. We are haunted by inequality, racism, corruption, violence, misogyny, and too many whose views are too tightly moored to a past that is thankfully receding rapidly into memory. This political campaign has revealed, as democratic processes are wont to do, many of these bad traits — with more of them associated with one candidate in particular than perhaps at any time since our first elections more than two centuries ago.
But this election is revealing not only the greatness of democracy but the greatness of the American people. Democracy — messy, ugly, coaxing out of the shadows our inner demons — is actually working. When this election is said and done, provided voters do not become too complacent and do their duty on Election Day, not only will sanity prevail and the most qualified candidate win (and Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified, accomplished, and deserving candidates for president America has ever seen), but the forces of darkness will be repudiated soundly, unmistakably rejected by the majority of the American people.
This dispiriting election has been dominated, thanks to Donald Trump and his supporters, by mean-spirited, even vile, rhetoric. But the American people are now rising up to repudiate it, and that is encouraging and profoundly reassuring. We have been given a choice, a stark one. We have vented; we have argued. And we have decided. Trump may huff and puff and make noises about determining whether or not he will accept the election results, but the beauty of our system is that the choice — despite his autocratic impulses — is not up to him, no matter how much money his father gave him, no matter how much he has scammed or sleazed his way along. He does not have enough power — no one has — to overcome the collective and clearly stated will of the American people.
But there is more that is encouraging than either the objective facts of American vitality or the soundness and solidity of U.S. democracy: What is best in our leaders complements that which is best in our people. And there is the promise of our collective future — especially if we find a place for America that better recognizes our strengths, our place in a global community, and what still needs to be fixed.
As for our leaders, let’s start by looking to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Although they have much to be proud of over the past eight years — despite the inevitable struggles, misfires, and errors associated with any presidency (as I have often pointed out in my columns) — they have covered themselves in glory during these last few months. Their speeches on the campaign trail have not only been extraordinarily powerful — the best delivered by anyone on any side — but they have been eloquent and inspiring. Indeed, I would go further and say that Michelle Obama has emerged as the most compelling and trusted voice in American politics. Why? Because she combines passion with the right values. And say what you will about Barack Obama, but his administration has been devoid of scandal, marked by serial dignity and an unwavering, unrelentingly intelligent effort to find the best way forward. All of us stumble. What sets us apart is the path we have set out on and our ability to continuously move onward and upward despite the obstacles we face. No American president of the modern era has left office with greater dignity nor has any other in recent memory done so much, with such effectiveness, to help elect his successor and ensure the continuation of his policies.
Hillary Clinton, too, has grown in the last weeks before our eyes from being a compelling and worthy candidate into looking very much like the next president of the United States. She has followed Michelle Obama’s advice and largely taken the high road. She has begun to set aside wonkery and campaign spats for a resolutely optimistic vision of the country. She has articulated directly what must be her top objective as president: being a leader for all people — including the alienated and frustrated who fueled the campaigns of Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson. What is broken in America requires that we do what we are supposed to after even the most divisive campaigns — even civil war — and that is reach out to one another. Our next leader must therefore do that most leaderly thing: She must listen even to those who offer only criticism. She must find compromises, and she must rise above or work around those who seek only to impede. And in this promising moment, that is precisely what Clinton is promising to do.
Finally, what makes this a great moment to be an American is that our prospects are so good. At home, that means we enter this next chapter in our history having made extraordinary progress at healing old divisions. Our incoming president will for the first time in history be a member of our majority population — women. This should be profoundly moving to all who love the central idea of democracy or simply the best values of humanity. Our outgoing president was the first African-American chief executive in the nation’s history. Under his watch, the nation fully embraced the idea of marriage equality — that the government would no longer seek to regulate love between people. And we are at the threshold of powerful changes that will build on these breakthroughs. For the first time in U.S. history, children who once were thought of as members of minority groups — African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians — now make up the majority in our schools. Within roughly a quarter century, that will be true for the United States as a whole. We will be living the promise of being an open, diverse society, culturally richer than any other in the world, which provides benefits in our lives in countless ways, from offering a multitude of experiences and traditions to helping our workforce better compete in the global era.
We also are entering an era in which Hillary Clinton offers the promise of a different kind of American leadership — not the unilateralism of George W. Bush, nor the hesitancy of Obama, but one that is both engaged and committed to strengthening alliances. Indeed, that type of leadership might be best characterized by her campaign slogan (even though it was intended, I presume, to speak to domestic concerns). “Stronger Together” should be our motto overseas, with allies and even with rivals. And we will have an incoming president with the most foreign-policy experience of any since Dwight Eisenhower to help oversee this.
We lead in energy production and in so doing have greater independence from foreign producers. We lead in the technologies of tomorrow, from the internet to biotech, from neuroscience to nanotech. We have the people and the resources and the outlook and the leadership necessary not just to lead the world for the foreseeable future but, better still, to work with the rest of the world, to share with the world, to improve the world, and to be open to letting it improve us.
That, of course, is the genius of the American system. It is designed to reinvent itself. It is designed to succeed even if none of those who are elevated to high office within it are perfect. In fact, it was designed based on the understanding that none would be, that the best system succeeds when its leaders are just average, and thus inhibits and constrains those who are or would be worse than that. In other words, it is a system whose architects had both great aspirations and realistic expectations, audacity and humility, flaws and a desire to overcome them. In other words, it is a system that looks like the people it serves. And we are nearing — if we all do our jobs and vote not just our consciences but our collective wisdom — yet another moment in which to celebrate it and this country it has helped build.