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Is America Still a Great Nation?

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Flickr: PMillera4
Flickr: PMillera4

Is America still a great nation?

With more than 1000 military bases over the globe, there is no question the world feels the presence of the Pentagon. But does that alone qualify as greatness?

In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a mere 31 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction. It's been nearly eight years since this poll indicated a majority felt America was on the right track.

When has a Republican presidential candidate mentioned the growing inequality between rich and poor, opting instead to accuse President Barack Obama of class warfare?

We are saturated with misappropriations of the phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, "American exceptionalism."

De Tocqueville argued that America was exceptional because its origins were fashioned by revolution, its guiding principles were based on the Enlightenment, and its land and its resources were untapped and seemingly infinite.

In our 21st century discourse American exceptionalism has been translated into vaunted claims of moral superiority, a value statement rooted in divine providence.

It is the latter observation that gives rise to our collective dismay that gas prices may be inching toward the $5 per gallon plateau. If such an announcement were made in London, Paris or Berlin there would be euphoric dancing in the streets.

Many Americans, hamstrung by the folklore that is American exceptionalism, believe erroneous claims that gas prices can be reduced to, say, $2.50 per gallon if we simply drill a few more holes in the ground domestically.

But the overall political climate doesn't fare much better. While partisanship is nothing new to American politics, there is a feeling that elected officials in Washington are unwilling or unable (I suspect a little of both) to work together to pass meaningful legislation.

Moderates -- those I define as willing to compromise -- from both parties are becoming an increasingly rare site.

Seldom in American history does landmark legislation pass with only the support from one of the two major political parties. But to hear the discourse emanating from the base of both parties one would think that super majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the White House is the only way to get things done.

When the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 -- commonly known as the G.I. Bill -- became law, an estimated 7.8 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program and 2.4 million veterans had home loans backed by the Veterans' Administration.

The G.I. Bill was landmark bipartisan legislation that did as much to move Americans into the middle class as any post WWII event. The landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 65 was also a bipartisan effort.

I'm quite certain, based on emails that I've received in the past when I broach this topic, that a bipartisan coalition comprised of partisan loyalist will explain why the current dysfunction is the fault of the other party.

This analysis is as helpful as the captain of the Titanic holding a staff meeting to locate the whereabouts of the misplaced bucket.

Will the type of manufacturing jobs return that allowed individuals like my father to purchase a home, buy additional property, and send his children to college, while possessing only a high school diploma? Probably not.

There is a level of honesty missing from our current political discourse. It is a prohibitive barrier that elected officials appear unwilling to engage and the electorate not ready to receive.

If this persists can America call itself great?

But I remain hopeful about America's potential to change its present course. It's nothing tangible; just call it a feeling based on our transformative history.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of the forthcoming book: 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit the website 1963hopeandhostility.com