Americans think big.

Photographer: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

This Election's Big Question: What Makes America Great?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

In two months on the road covering the 2016 presidential primaries, I've seen the U.S. going through something of an identity crisis, after decades of dominance. The candidates are talking about what the voters are thinking about: What does it mean for America to be great? 

To a traveler, America's greatness is revealed in simple, visual ways. Everywhere, even in sparse rural areas, there's a healthy bustle of activity. Americans get up early, and they find it hard to keep still. At a Florida intersection, I watched a man expertly juggle a mattress-store sign to attract customers. He might hold the sign for minimum wage, but that's not why he juggles it.

The whole country is never in repose; an energy runs through it that you won't find anywhere else, and a sense of constant, habitual competition is ever-present. This is the biggest economy in the world, and it feels like it. It feels like a great nation.

To the presidential candidates, however, the issue of greatness is debatable.

"We don't win anymore," complains Donald Trump, who has unashamedly picked up Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again." To him, as a candidate or as a potential leader, the game is zero-sum: If you win, somebody has to lose. Trump talks a lot about negotiating and making deals, but he doesn't mean it in the European or Asian sense of reaching a compromise or consensus: The negotiations he has in mind are power plays, and the deals are victories for the U.S. and defeats for its partners. It's a fundamentally imperialist vision of greatness, in which the U.S. takes what it needs from others, be it oil from Islamic State ("take the oil," Trump keeps saying) or money from Mexico to build a wall that'll keep Mexicans out of the U.S. 

America has been great in that way since World War II, and throughout the rest of the world, the opinion that it's capable of taking whatever it wants is at the root of unfavorable perceptions of the U.S. The Russian state propaganda narrative is that Barack Obama is a bully. Trump and his supporters don't buy this; they want the U.S. to be a bigger, better bully. Even Trump might find that a tall order.

As he declared victory in Iowa, Ted Cruz spoke of America as "the greatest nation the world has ever known" but said it had strayed from the principles that had made it such: free markets, constitutional liberties and what the conservative candidates keep calling "Judeo-Christian values" -- an incomprehensible term to me as a Jew, but a rallying cry to millions of people like those I saw in megachurches in the South who believe their religious liberty is threatened. 

Of all the candidates, Cruz has the vision of America's greatness that is the hardest for an outsider to understand. The Constitution, which Cruz keeps vowing to defend, is already more of a sacred cow here than anywhere else. In other countries, constitutions evolve; in the U.S., the document is sacrosanct, a religious artifact. Market freedoms are also in evidence, far more than in Europe: There's less interaction with the government and a distinctly more commercial, entrepreneurial culture. And the religious freedom issue, which invariably gets Cruz a big boost at rallies, is a mystery. Nowhere have I seen such an impressive variety of forms of Christian worship, or such rich, prosperous churches as in the U.S. It takes an incredibly strong imagination to find any signs of persecution here. The religious culture is vibrant, joyous and open to experimentation; there's no visible need for Christians to be on the defensive.

So Cruz appears simply to want the U.S. to have more of what it already has the most of. His is a quantitative vision of greatness that is entirely for domestic use. Non-Americans wouldn't notice if the country became greater on Cruz's terms.

On the night he came in second in New Hampshire and was energized to go on, John Kasich talked about the need to "re-shine" and "fix our great nation." It's easy to feel intuitively what he's getting at: Greater efficiency, a sense of a well-oiled machine that one gets, say, in Germany's industrial regions. By comparison, America is sloppier, more ad hoc: Poverty and dysfunction are too often on display. I've taken a lot of flights in these two months, and not one has been on time. Kasich's vision is one of a down-to-earth, common-sense manager. Greatness is about getting the nuts and bolts right.

That vision, however, is hard to scale from the White House, or from the state of Ohio that Kasich has continually held up as an example for the rest of the country. The almost tangible spirit of freedom that permeates the U.S. is not conducive to efficiency in the small things of life. The country is too diverse to run like a mechanism. 

Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the presidential race last week, had used his stump speech to offer a clear and appealing vision of greatness:

America is a great nation. Because each generation before us did their part. Each generation before us sacrificed, they confronted their challenges, they embraced their opportunities, and for over two centuries, each generation has left the next better off than themselves.

Rubio's message was that this was no longer working because of the Democrats' betrayal of the American dream in favor of over-regulation and excessive government. His claim would be more plausible if I had not traveled in Florida, including to Hialeah, the U.S. city with the highest proportion of Cubans -- Rubio's people. The city of 230,000 has 44,000 small businesses, and their owners still sacrifice, confront their challenges, embrace their opportunities and live the American dream. Rubio described it in the past tense, but the American dream is not dead. America's social fabric is what makes it a great country, and it appears to be intact.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has a compelling vision of a different kind of greatness. "A great nation is judged," he says, "by how it treats the most vulnerable amongst us." And, "The test of a great nation is not how many wars it can engage in, but how it can resolve international conflicts in a peaceful manner."

Sanders's understanding of greatness has a lot to do with justice and compassion. It's already easy for a stranger to feel at home here. Wherever I have gone, people have been helpful, courteous and considerate to a degree that is not common in the rest of the world. American culture is quite kind. Yet on a deeper level, many Americans feel insecure, cut off from help should they find themselves in trouble. Sanders wants to address this. It makes no sense to him that the country that accounts for 34 percent of all global defense spending has a health-care system that ranks among the last in the rich world and an education system whose students are behind European and Asian ones in reading and math skills. Surely all the candidates would want the U.S. to lead in those fields.

I suspect, though, that Sanders's idea of putting it right by getting tough on business and raising taxes would detract from the kind of greatness Rubio described so succinctly. Messing with a country's social fabric is dangerous, and it may make it more dysfunctional rather than fairer.

Hillary Clinton has made a typically pragmatic contribution to the greatness debate. "Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again," she has repeated in recent weeks. "America has never stopped being great." Clinton is changing the subject: She wants the conversation to be about healing divisions, "making the country whole again." 

Clinton is not promising an immediate leap in greatness. She wants the U.S. to become the global leader in sustainable energy, for example, but that leadership probably cannot be achieved even in the next two presidential terms. The Democratic front-runner's focus is on making the U.S. incrementally more livable. That's not an inspiring goal, but it makes sense. Perhaps that's why Clinton has won more votes so far than any other presidential candidate.

I come from a country that used to be great as an empire and as a totalitarian state. Greatness was always at the forefront of Russian rulers' minds. It still is, though the country is going through hard times economically, and many of its smartest people are seeking a future elsewhere. I have met a number of them here in the last two months, trying to figure out the American dream. Back home, Russian leaders would do well to forget about greatness for a while and to focus on more mundane priorities.

If only American leaders could do that as well. The U.S. can certainly afford to. But presidential candidates can't shed the burden of American greatness. As in Russia's case, it's in the nation's genes.

The yen for greatness runs deep. It's inescapable. And yet Americans have not yet agreed what they are yearning for. Does greatness mean being an unbeatable bully, or a bastion of enterprise and ingenuity, or the world's envy in health care and education? Trying to be all three at once appears unsustainable.

Given Clinton's strength, the U.S. is likely to delay that reckoning with "greatness," as she changes the subject. That defers the conversation for at least another cycle. But until there is an American consensus about American greatness, every presidential election will be an attempt to settle the question. They are likely to be as contentious and as angry as this one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net