When candidate Donald Trump rolled out his “Make America Great Again” slogan, Hillary Clinton chided him for taking the position that America isn’t great now. But today, New York governor Andrew Cuomo attacked the slogan from the opposite perspective. He said: “We’re not going to make America great again; it was never that great.” He added that America “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.”
The difference between these two takes may simply reflect the fact that Cuomo is more honest than Hillary. I’m not convinced she thinks America is great or ever was. I don’t think Barack Obama does.
However, this much is true: There was a time not very long ago when no mainstream Democrat would publicly deny that America has been great. I’m pretty sure that Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, never denied it and would have been appalled to hear any Democrat, and certainly his son, make such a declaration.
Andrew Cuomo quickly backed off. A spokesperson tried to spin his comment it this way:
Governor Cuomo disagrees with the President. The Governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality. America has not yet reached its maximum potential.
Now, Andrew Cuomo isn’t particularly bright, as a friend who attended law school with him told me years ago. But he’s not inarticulate enough to have said “we’re not going to make America great again” and “America was never that great,” when he actually meant America is great. He’s not inarticulate enough to say America will reach greatness when various conditions have been met (conditions that, by the way, are impossible for any society to attain) if he believes America has already attained greatness.
The fact that Cuomo is willing to lie in the hope of talking his way out what he said encourages me. It shows that all is not lost.
But I suspect that a generation of young Democrats finds nothing jarring about Cuomo’s statement and, indeed, tends to agree with it. In a way, it would be hard to blame them if that’s the case.
In many jurisdictions, students have long been taught at a very early age that American was never that great. Because of “Black History Month,” Americans’ first few encounters with their history focus on its darkest chapters. Before they hear about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American liberation of Europe, they have already heard multiple times about slavery and Jim Crow.
And once they study American history, what do students ever hear about the Declaration of Independence,the Constitution, the liberation of Europe, etc? I don’t know how American history is taught in elementary school, though I remember my older daughter’s fifth grade class put Christoper Columbus on trial for his conduct towards Indians.
I do know how the College Board mandates that American History be taught in high school to AP students. I wrote about it in this post, among others. Here is what I wrote about the framework for treating the U.S. Constitution:
In the “historical period” 1754-1800, the U.S. Constitution continues to get short-changed. It’s buried under the “key concept” that “the American Republic’s democratic and republican ideals inspired new experiments with different forms of government.”
Surely, the Constitution is at the top of the list of powerful examples of “American exceptionalism.” You wouldn’t know it from the framework.
If you’re taught that the Constitution was just one of various experiments with different forms of government, why not conclude that there was nothing great about it.
I also wrote:
The framework carves out 1844-1877 as a “historical period” and identifies as its first key concept:
The United States became more connected with world, pursued an expansionist foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere, and emerged as the destination for many migrants from other countries.
Are imperialism and immigration really the key concepts from this period? What about the Civil War? And why is 1844-1877 a defining historical period?
The answers, I suspect, reside in the College Board’s desire to begin the discussion with the war with Mexico and end it with the failure of Reconstruction. In this telling, the abolition of slavery becomes a fleeting moment of good work in a sea of land-grabbing, racism, and oppression.
In other words, “America was never that great.”
At the rate things are going, we are maybe a decade away from the time when Andrew Cuomo can tell us how he really feels about America without having to backtrack.