Americans agree on this much: They are disgusted with politics.
Yet Americans say they still believe in America, the experiment in democracy that the founders described as a place where the government should protect the rights of ordinary people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s something at the core of America they long for, even if it’s hard to define and seems distant in 2016.
Donald Trump proclaims he will “make America great again.” Hillary Clinton counters that America “has never stopped being great.” But what does that even mean?
The Associated Press interviewed a wide range of Americans to get a sense of what they think about the nation’s greatness in the twilight of President Barrack Obama’s eight years in office. The responses were as different as Americans can be, yet a theme emerged: Compared to other nations, the United States is at least good, probably even great. But there’s a lot of work to be done.
“Yes, America is great. It could be a lot better if the politicians weren’t fighting each other all the time …,” said Rodney Kimball, a 74-year-old stove dealer in West Bethel, Maine. “The government needs to start doing what’s right for the people.”
America is divided, and the current dearth of confidence in the nation’s politics and government is striking. Recent polling by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows just 13 percent of Americans are proud of the 2016 election, and 55 percent feel helpless. Only 10 percent have a great deal of confidence in the overall political system.
Although their America is still a land of shining seas, spacious skies and majestic mountains, many express a deep sense of disenchantment and uncertainty in their own lives.
“I think that America as an idea is one of the most beautiful ideas that the world has ever known. I think that American opportunity and ingenuity has built some of the most incredible technologies and innovations today,” said Allene Swanson, 22, of Chicago. “And still, when I look around, I see a country that seems like it’s crumbling. I see people who are hungry and broke and who are struggling a lot.”
For people like 32-year-old Craig House, real success has always seemed out of reach. He lives in inner city St. Louis with his grandmother in a sea of burned- out buildings and abandoned schools, not far from a hip, trendy part of town.
“America has always been great, just not for me and my people. For us it’s been the worst ever,” said House. “People come from all over the world, Arabs own this, that. Black man don’t own nothing.”
Known as “Deacon” in his native New Orleans, 74-year-old guitarist John Moore fondly recalls the 1960s, when black people like him were seeing an end to racial segregation; when women were gaining equality; when politicians were taking a stand to end poverty despite the turmoil of protests over the Vietnam War.
“ Those were the best years,” said Moore, tears welling in his eyes in the living room-turned-recording studio of his shotgun house. “And then they were destroyed right before my very eyes when they assassinated all of our leaders. Robert Kennedy. John Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Malcom X. All of our leaders. And, you know, that was the end of hope. We had no more hope.”
Hope returned, at least for some, in 2008 when the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president seemed to prove anyone really could accomplish anything in America.
Yet the years that followed have seemed more unsettling than uplifting to many. Today, some people want more from their government. Others just want it to go away as much as possible.
“I expect less government, less regulation,” said Russ Madson, 45, a steel industry worker looking for better opportunities in Birmingham, Alabama. “Our country was built by people like the Rockefellers, Edison, Henry Ford — pioneers. And today they couldn’t do what they did because of regulation.”
But others expect more of government. Agriculture consultant and farmer Mike Poling of Delphos, Ohio, expects good governance and leadership “and nothing less.”
“That’s what got us to this point and that’s what made America great,” said Poling, 58. “What made America great is its people. That’s what built the country. Our forefathers had the foresight to draft the Constitution, the Bill of Rights that has laid the groundwork for (the) nation carrying on for 200 years and continues to guide us.”
Yet American greatness isn’t just about words scrawled on yellowed paper and kept in a vault at the National Archives. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, 29-yearold Kimberly Jung sees it as something deeper, a challenge to every citizen.
“I believe greatness is a responsibility,” said Jung, of Chicago. “It’s a dual state of mind in which you know your power or you know what resources you have but also your weaknesses. And you harness that set of strengths and weaknesses to work with a group and form a team and do great things.”
Whether they opt for Trump, Clinton or someone else in November, Americans say the state of the union isn’t good enough. Amal Kassir, a 20-year-old college student from Denver, sees her own future caught up with the chance the country has right now to make itself into something better.
“ No doubt whatever greatness I’m capable of comes from being in this place,” she said.