Is America a Great Nation or Not? Let's See How the Democrats Answer | Opinion

It's a question that will be on the ballot in 2020. The answer was once self-evident. Now, based on what many Democrats running for president have to say, it's doubtful most of them—"by show of hands"—would affirm the proposition were it put to them.

Why the Democratic debate moderators didn't consider the question worth asking this week is curious. We know where President Donald Trump stands. It would be interesting to hear how those seeking to replace him would respond. And, given the proliferation of identity politics based on exclusion from, rather than participation in, the American experience, it's highly relevant.

The Democrats who want to be president are exploiting greed, envy and the feeling that somehow, somewhere, other people are sitting in a room and dividing up the national spoils without giving others a share. Note the resonance of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's continued refrain regarding what the powerful and wealthy have "sucked out" of the system.

Ignorant of the world as only a professor teaching a single class at Harvard can be, Warren and her compatriots don't understand that profits are good, incentives are worthwhile, and we depend on them and one another for our livelihood and success. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to make a village—and to establish the rules by which we can all live together in harmony.

This democratic instinct is the core of our national identity and has been there for centuries. On July 30, 1619, representatives of the various settlements throughout colonial Virginia met in Jamestown to establish the continent's first colonial legislature. It was the beginning of a process grounded in common law that would someday be called American democracy.

It was imperfect then and now, but our democratic process—tempered by the recognition of individual, inalienable rights given to us by our Creator—has refined us. As iron sharpens iron, the struggle to overcome our mistakes, our prejudices and our sins has sharpened who we are as a people.

"In our time, we must vigorously defend those cherished democratic traditions that have made our beloved republic the envy of the entire world—and it still is, as much as ever before, and maybe more. Our hard-won culture of self-government must be nourished, protected, and constantly preserved. That is why we must speak out strongly against anyone who would take power away from citizens, individuals, and state governments such as yours," Trump said at Jamestown Tuesday to the dignitaries gathered there. "In America, the people will forever rule, the people will forever reign, and the people will forever be sovereign."

Perhaps. Or is our passion for self-government fading? Are we looking for something new because what we have is hard? Is the idea of giving up our liberties for the sake of convenience somehow becoming attractive? If the answer is yes, then we are on the edge of a dystopian nightmare.

Who will pay for all the "free" stuff the Democrats who want to be president are busy promising to the coalition of the disaffected? Free college. Free health care. Free love. Free...everything. The rich, the Democrats say, whether the recipients do their fair share of the work or not.

Wealthy American individuals and great estates and successful corporations will continue to thrive, despite being taxed to cover the inherent inequities in the American system that leave some people out permanently, from generation to generation?

That works only if late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was wrong, that under socialism you don't, sooner or later, run out of other people's money. So far, everywhere socialism has been tried, she hasn't been. Rapid economic mobility, both up and down the ladder of success, is very much a part of the American story. Here, it is just as easy for the rich to become poor as it is for the poor to become rich.

Democrats Biden debate
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre on July 31 in Detroit. Scott Olson/Getty

Sanders and O'Rourke and Warren and Gillibrand and Booker and Castro and Harris and Williamson and Yang and the other Democrats are running on a platform that promises equality without explaining what it means. They may decry, for example, income inequality, but it's still preferable to income equality.

Two visions of the future are on the ballot in November 2020. Shall America continue to be a place where the people take ownership of their future and, through the democratic process and the hard work that comes with freedom, control their destiny and make the nation better? Or shall they abandon self-government for something else? The journey that began at Jamestown and has taken us through Boston and Philadelphia and Gettysburg and Promontory Point and Birmingham and Selma isn't over, not by far. In fact, even though it's 400 years old, it's just beginning.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.