We Were Number One

All right, my fellow flag-waving, red-blooded ’mericans! Say it with me now: “We’re number one! We’re number one!”

Feels good, doesn’t it? But as I learned from my high school football career, saying you’re number one and being number one are two entirely different propositions. What is the United States of America number one in, anyway?

#1 in military spending

#1 economy (GDP and per capita-GDP)

#1 in investment in clean energy

#1 higher education system (not accounting for affordability)

But we’re not number one in everything:

#10 in economic freedom

#16 in percentage of young adults with college degrees

#5 in global competitiveness

#47 in global freedom of the press

#38 in global life expectancy

#126 in babies born at full term (general indicator of prenatal health)

Alas, we can contort and distort numbers and rankings all day long. Maybe we should ask the question a little differently. If we want to know whether America remains the greatest country in the world, we first need to understand:

What made America great in the first place?

I’m going to avoid the cop-out answer that America is and was the greatest country on earth, because Americans are the greatest people on earth. If you buy into that kind of circular logic, then A) you’re probably not reading this blog, and B) you have neglected to observe that greatness is not an immutable quality passed down from generation to generation. If it were, then Athens and Rome would still be the centers of the world rather than cities boasting of ancient ruins and teetering on the brink of modern ruin. If you think America has an irrevocable place at the top of every US News & World Report ranking of “World’s Most Awesomest Countries,” then you never thought about what made this place so awesome in the first place.

In my view, America’s past greatness had to do with a few key events and a few systemic innovations:

Thirteen disparate colonies united under duress to reject monarchy and to risk their lives on behalf of an untested political experiment: that they could establish and perpetuate the first democratic government in the modern world.

A rag-tag group of under-clothed, under-supplied amateur soldiers, out-manned and outgunned by the world’s then-greatest military, defeated the British Empire in an eight-year-long war.

The preservation of certain indelible rights in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights made sure that American government could not revoke or encroach upon the ability of citizens to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, to speak their minds, to publish their opinions, to critique their laws or leaders, to gather and to mobilize, to defend themselves and their families, to secure their private property, and to expect justice and fairness in the courts.

Rocky Balboa beat Ivan Drago.

Though George Washington could have, on multiple occasions, seized absolute power and declared himself the King of America, he humbly and wisely viewed political power as something that belonged solely to the people.

Tested in the crucible of a massive civil war, a reunited country embraced its ideological heritage that “all men are created equal” and outlawed the institution of chattel slavery, even though freeing slaves risked destroying the nation’s pre-industrial agrarian economy.

The voluntary influx of immigrants to the United States produced a self-selected populace of idealistic risk-takers and hardscrabble, can-do workers.

Faced with unprecedented economic free fall and epidemic financial hardship, the federal government empowered millions of Americans to get back to work building bridges, parks, roads, and buildings, effectively lifting the chin of American families until their economic hope was restored.

When the entire world stood on the precipice of overthrow by fascist Axis powers, the United States intervened and defeated dreaded armies in two separate hemispheres at the same time.

The US developed a culture of applied innovation. Thinking was always followed by making and doing and improving.

For decades, when no one else could rival the Soviet Union’s might, the US stared down its communist rivals to ensure that global democracy might be preserved.

With the abolition of debtor’s prison and indentured servitude, bankruptcy became a humbling, learning opportunity rather than the end of the world, so taking financial risks became a viable economic strategy with no ceiling and an ample safety net.

We were the first to put a man on the moon (back when it was mind-blowing to even consider), and we used computers with less memory than your iPhone to do it.

American culture nurtured the independent spirits of Teddy Roosevelt, Sacagawea, Mark Twain, Sojourner Truth, Ted Williams, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ernest Hemingway, Elvis Presley, Steve Jobs, and Clint Eastwood.

Dropping out of college became, in America, an accepted career path for billionaires.

The catalytic mixture of representative democracy (unrivaled political freedom) and entrepreneurial capitalism (unlimited economic opportunity) created a “Land of Opportunity” that generated ideas, inventions, innovations, and wealth at a rate unparalleled in human history.

I acknowledge that this is neither a complete nor definitive list. What would you add?

If we want to fix what is broken with America today, we need to start by understanding what was right with America yesterday. Once we establish a robust understanding of historical dynamics and cultivate a nuanced fluency in present global culture, then we can begin to translate key principles—not copying-and-pasting specific anachronistic policies!—to the situations we face now.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. grandokieNo Gravatar says:

    Great article.  Might add De Tocqueville’s comments that America is great because America is good.  He noted that America had religion on every street corner and it was in our nations fabric, which helped us value our fellow man.  It was that goodness and that created organizations, long before big government social programs arrived on the scene, like The American Red Cross.  We have always been a strong country in charitable giving to help others in need.