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Great or grate: The American people always get to decide

Every election cycle seems to bring a variation of how to make America “great again,” part of our pretty consistent pining for the “good old days.” What that means depends on who’s longing for them.

I don’t think America ever stopped being great, though we always will have room to improve and things to fix. But let me start with a disclaimer:

This column is not about why you should or shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Neither would be my choice for president, but I suspect we’ll survive and even enjoy both victories and defeats nationally as time passes, regardless of who wins.

What makes a country great is more than a robust economy or strong education system, though those are crucial and form a foundation. I think citizens determine how great a country is. If ordinary people don’t have real impact, there’s something wrong with the country.

That’s where we can all step up. Among America’s greatest historical strengths are its freedom and privacy rights and respect for others, even when people disagree about things. This country’s Founders so believed in the right to have an opinion and speak one’s mind that they made it part of the First Amendment. They so valued cooperation and respect for others that they included it in our name: United States.

The practical application happens at street level — and I don’t think we’re doing so well when it comes to respecting others and working together when we have differences. As for freedom of expression, a lot of us want it for ourselves, while happily shouting down anyone with whom we disagree.

For example, surveys suggest that young people increasingly believe speech that might offend someone should be curtailed, which I find troubling. Who decides what’s offensive and is there any topic that wouldn’t upset someone? It’s not just the young, either. Increasingly, people listen only to those who share their viewpoints, going into attack mode against anyone who disagrees. Political discourse is seldom civil and for the first time I can remember, even candidates for the highest office in the land have decided to eschew decorum in favor of actual name calling and disrespectful behavior.

That behavior goes along nicely with the notion that public opinion is everything. Take the recent tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo, where a child fell into a gorilla enclosure and zoo staff killed the animal to protect the child.

Some say it was the wrong decision, others that the child’s mom should be held accountable. Every parent has lost track of a child for a second and most of us have just been hugely relieved that nothing terrible occurred.

Polling was nearly instantaneous, as it usually is these days. Should the gorilla have been killed? Yes or no? As far as I can tell, none of those answering — including those using personal celebrity as a soapbox — were there. Nor are they experts in animal behavior.

Public opinion is interesting, but sometimes that’s all it is. Public opinion that the earth was flat doesn’t change the fact that the earth is round. Whether people believe in God won’t change whether or not God exists. “I think” or “I believe” someone did this or that doesn’t change the facts, though we may never know them.

There’s a lot more I don’t know than I do, but I know this: If I’m having surgery, I want a skilled surgeon, not a poll. If police are dealing with an emergency, I want their best training and experience, not fear of what polling will show later. If someone's accused of a crime, I want evidence, not public opinion.

We change our mind about things as we learn more. That’s a good thing. And when we respect others and work together to solve our differences, instead of widening the chasms that divide us, we are stronger.

Those traits have always made America great.

Email:, Twitter: Loisco