When Was America “Great?”

Trump hatWhat does it mean to “Make America Great Again?”

Since Donald Trump released his campaign slogan I have been trying to call attention to the way Americans historians might help us understand it.  I am making an educated guess that on November 8, 2016 my work on this front will come to an end and I will be writing about Hillary Clinton’s use (and inevitable misuse) of the past.

To be clear, I do not think historians are primarily in the business of making value judgments on what parts of American history were “great” and what parts of American history were not “great.”  But we can help Americans make this decision for themselves. We can offer suggestions about the meaning of America.  We can make them aware of what America was like so that they can decide if they want to back a candidate who will take us there “again.” This is one way in which historians can, and must, contribute to this crazy election cycle.

In a recent report The Washington Post assumes that Trump’s campaign slogan is an appeal to life in the 1950s when things were truly “great.” The report offers some data on American life in that decade and compares it to the present day.

Check out the report here.  Here is a taste of the summary:

But, things are getting much better for most Americans. “If you look back in the last 50 years, a lot of things have really changed tremendously for women,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Education has opened up in a big way, and with that, access to better paying jobs.” Women saw not only an increase in employment and the financial independence that came along with it, but also gained political power as the glass ceiling began to crack.

People of color are seeing similar gains. Since the 1950s, with the decline of segregation and Jim Crow laws, there has been an increase in black individuals going to college, buying homes, living above the poverty line, leading businesses and governments, and succeeding along a variety of other measures.

Of course there are many who would argue that improvements for women and people of color are not the only way to measure American “greatness.”

(Thanks to my former student Phil Strunk for bringing this article to my attention).

2 thoughts on “When Was America “Great?”

  1. In 1950, the black marriage and unemployment rates were virtually identical to those of whites.


    • In 1950, 72 percent of all black men and 81 percent of black women had been married.

    • Every census from 1890 to 1950 showed that black labor force participation rates were higher than those of whites.

    • Prior to the 1960’s the unemployment rate for black 16 and 17-year olds was under 10 percent.

    • Before 1960, the number of teenage pregnancies had been decreasing; both poverty and dependency were declining, and black income was rising in both absolute and relative terms to white income.

    • In 1965, 76.4 percent of black children were born to married women.

    So what changed the equation?


  2. this is more of a musing I’ve had without any real investigation… but I wonder if Robert Putnam’s idea of the break down of social capital has anything to do with the idea of returning to “greatness.” While his thesis isn’t unchallenged, I still think some of the centralized institutional breakdown described in the book has some merit, and might be an aspect of what people think was lost.


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