THE BLOG

Is Being American Still a Gift?

09/21/2012 06:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2012
  • Scott Warren Co-founder and Executive Director, Generation Citizen

This week, the release of remarks that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made at a May fundraiser has engrossed the nation, and potentially changed, or solidified, the direction of the election. Most of the attention has focused on Romney's degradation of the approximately 47% of Americans who don't pay income taxes, who he asserts see themselves as victims and will automatically vote for Obama. This assertion has been rightfully badgered to death, from the tone (essentially writing off half of the electorate) to the substance (many of this 47% actually are Republican).

But there is another part of the speech that has not received enough attention, and gets to the core of what traditionally has made America unique: the opportunity to make it for yourself if you assert yourself and work hard. Near the beginning of his remarks, Romney asserts that, "95% of life is set up for you if you were born in this country." This sounds like an out-of-touch candidate at his worst. But, despite being a Democrat, in context, I actually agree with him, and his point is consequential.

Many on the left have blasted this portion of the speech as evidence of Romney's elitist roots. He grew up in a wealthy family, went to prep school, and interacted with only the privileged as he received joint degrees from both Harvard Law and Business School. It is easy to say that life is set up for you, these people assert, if others have made it so easy for you to succeed. And to an extent, they're right. While Romney's career has been incredibly lucrative, he always had an easier path to get there. For him, most of life was handed to him on a silver platter.

But context matters here. Romney follows his 95% assertion with an anecdote about female workers in a Chinese factory he visited during his Bain Capital days. He speaks of the horrid living conditions of three bunk beds on top of each other, of a barbed wire fence to actually prevent girls from coming in (because this factory marked the only way for them to get employment), of the oppressive working hours the females were forced to endure. And then, Romney acknowledges how lucky he is to be an American, stating, that he received "the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America."

I will proudly cast my ballot for Barack Obama in November, and like many Americans, was appalled to hear of Romney's sentiments on the "victimization" of the 47%. But I actually agree with him: Americans are incredibly lucky to be born here.

And I feel these sentiments because, like Romney, I saw the alternative overseas. Growing up as a Foreign Service brat in places like Kenya, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, I gained a valuable international perspective through being exposed to a myriad of different cultures. But I also realized how lucky I am to be an American. I saw the dollar crash in Argentina, which led to the country having five presidents in three weeks. I met incredibly impoverished Kenyans in the slum of Kibera, who in the face of a negligent government, had given up hope of a better future, despite incredible work ethics. I witnessed a coup in Ecuador, when people took to the streets with guns and fire to depose of a president whom they felt had failed their democracy. I met with Zimbabweans, frustrated that "one man, one vote" was a value that failed to apply to their country. In country after country, citizens felt, rightfully so, that their voices did not matter.

Like Mitt Romney, I came back from my experience overseas knowing that being American was perhaps the greatest gift I had ever received. I knew that my voice mattered. I knew that if I wanted to make a difference, I could. And in college, I did, leading efforts to convince my college, my city, and my state to divest their assets from international companies doing business in Sudan during the Darfur genocide. These acts would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, in most countries throughout the world.

The principles upon which America was founded allows each individual in this country to express their opinion freely, and if they express that opinion intelligently and gather support, to make a collective difference. That ability to affect communal change as an individual is central to being an American.

Indeed, in the international context, which is what Romney was referring to, 95% of the battle is being American. That other 5% though is what this election needs to be about. While this country's democracy is based on the premise of political equality, it is the concept of social mobility that now must concern us. If you go to school, work hard, and play by the rules, can you still succeed in this country? That's not as clear. And it needs to be clear.

Republicans have attempted to co-opt the messaging of being "proud to be an American," insisting that Democrats are always apologizing for their country. Liberals in turn, can be shy about being boastful about a country that they see as deeply flawed. We all, however, should recognize that we are incredibly lucky to be Americans. Few other countries in the world permit their citizens to play such an active role in their democracy. The question, though, is whether we will use this ability to, as Langston Hughes said, "let America be America again- the land that never has been yet- and yes must be."