Say the phrase "make America great again" and it will either lead to heartfelt applause or looks of disdain followed by jeers. In either case, tens if not hundreds of thousands have attended rallies across the country to listen to a man who says he will make America great again. Nary a soul will admit that they don't want America to be great. More are likely to confess restoring greatness will not come from either of the two very flawed presidential candidates.
So how do we become great again? The same way Olympic athletes win gold: they resolutely work for it. They train. They discipline their bodies. They compete with intense focus. Simone Biles didn't ask her head coach Aimee Boorman to perform her floor exercise. Nor did Michael Phelps ask his trainer to take his place in the pool. If that seems obvious, then why do we as American's expect mere politicians to do all the heavy-lifting of making this a great place to live?
Politicians are to the citizenry what coaches are to athletes. Both are necessary to win. America will not "win gold," or find greatness for that matter if part of the team fails in its responsibility.(Remember, less than a year ago fewer than one in three Kentuckians bothered to vote in the governor's race). So each of us must ask: What can I do to make America great? What can I do to make Kentucky great?
Here's where we can start: Cultivate character. Take ownership of your life and the choices you make. Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. Be careful with your words and be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Live a life of gratitude. Realize that God made you for a purpose. You are unique with gifts and abilities and talents unlike anyone else. Be careful with your time, for we are only allotted so many days on this earth. Be diligent in your work and pursue excellence.
Invest in your family more carefully than you invest in your retirement, for that's your real treasure. Nurture your children and love them deeply. Train them to walk in goodness, justice and mercy. Invest in your community and practice good citizenship. Minister to the needy. Care for the widows and orphans and help those who cannot help themselves. Love your neighbor as yourself and love even more the God who gave that commandment. Ok, end of sermon. But shouldn't we preach these kind of things to ourselves daily?
Nearly 200 years ago a Frenchman came to this country to try to find what made American great. In a word, he found it in her people. Americans enjoyed maximum freedom to live and work and raise families without coercion by the government. They were free to move about, exercise their religion, speak their opinions, and elect their leaders. It was these things that truly made America great.
Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in his book Democracy in America "Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association." De Tocqueville contrasted American zeal and can-do civic spirit with that of England or France where "at the head of any new undertaking… you would find the government" leading the way. But in America he found people who associate to work together leading. Why settle for platitudes and wait on political promises when so much of the solution is in our hands?
America will become great when we realize that fixing it is beyond whatever any politician—president or otherwise—can do for us. Americans do not need a political savior as much as they need to take ownership in their own civic duty. America will become great again when the character of the American people becomes exceptional. And when our character becomes exceptional, we will demand that the character of our leaders be outstanding.
A version of this column appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on August 18, 2016.