101 Great Things About America (2020 Edition)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
This Fourth of July, people from coast to coast were supposed to fire up the grill, crack a cold beverage, and crank up the tunes in celebration of yet another Independence Day. Some of you—hell, many of you—will still do so in honor of America’s 244 trips around the sun. But you’ll be doing it in a socially distanced way from the comfort of a home likely subject to lockdown orders thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Holiday concert? Canceled. Fireworks? Fuggeddaboutit. Summertime ballgame? Yer outta here!
That’s okay. On the 10th anniversary of our first-ever list of “100 great things about America,” the editorial staff at Fortune is once again here to help you remember the people, places, things, and ideas that make the United States worth celebrating (even if a few more of us could stand to wear face masks).
As with our prior lists, there are only a few rules. The first: We claim no ranking or exclusivity to this list, so spare us the kvetching when you weigh in at firstname.lastname@example.org. The second: Deceased folks are disbarred—simple as that. Finally, we suspended our usual “no repeats” rule since our annual observation of this Fortune tradition has been a bit spotty. (One too many cold ones, we’re afraid.)
Oh, and one more thing: This list was originally the brainchild of former Fortune top editor Andy Serwer, who as it so happens also decided this year to revive the lost tradition over at Yahoo Finance. Great minds, Andy. Here’s to America—and to you.
Who and what made this year’s list? Read on to find out.
Contributors: Megan Arnold, Kristen Bellstrom, Daniel Bentley, Maria Carmicino, Lee Clifford, Geoff Colvin, Scott DeCarlo, Mia Diehl, Josue Evilla, Nicole Goodkind, Robert Hackett, Armin Harris, Matt Heimer, Alison Klooster, Verne Kopytoff, Michal Lev-Ram, McKenna Moore, David Z. Morris, Sy Mukherjee, Andrew Nusca, Brian O’Keefe, Aaron Pressman, Rachel Schallom, Jonathan Vanian, Bernhard Warner, Jen Wieczner
1.) #MeToo movement
A movement that started in the U.S. and went on to rock the global patriarchy.
Because Americans invented—and reinvented—casual dressing.
The perfect breakfast—and sometimes lunch—carbohydrate, this dense and chewy classic has yet to be replicated, let alone improved upon, outside of America’s borders, European bakeries and pastry shops be damned. Just try being jet-lagged—or worse, hung over—in a foreign airport and you’ll never miss home so much. Sure, the bagel may have originated in Eastern Europe, but it was perfected in New York and New Jersey. Besides: What more could you possibly want out of life after enjoying an everything bagel? (Another, maybe.)
4.) Baseball caps
Baseball is fine. Baseball hats? Amazing.
Invented out of thin air (by a Canadian!) in America, now the most popular sport in China.
Carolina vinegar or Memphis-style sweet sauce. Pulled pork or beef brisket. Dallas or Kansas City. We love to argue about it. We love to eat it. And it’s all-American.
The most powerful force in music today.
8.) Big-box stores
Not all good to be sure, but great for stocking up during, say, a pandemic.
Low in calories and high in antioxidants, these super-healthy berries are native to North America. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of them. And they’re delicious in muffins and smoothies. Pretty great.
10.) Bob Dylan
He is a sage, a whisperer of the times. From “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Murder Most Foul,” he is able to capture things about society in a way that only American folk music can.
11.) Bourbon whiskey
It is delicious.
12.) The California coastline
Eight-hundred-and-forty miles of waterfront that includes deserts, redwood forests, cranky sea lions, Marine Corps helipads, and much more—and almost all of it publicly accessible, thanks to state laws that put public access first.
13.) Carole King
She broke the gender barrier in modern pop-music songwriting, and she did it the American way—by writing better songs that kicked the boys’ club’s butts on the Billboard charts.
14.) The Census
Everyone in the U.S. has a chance to get counted, and therefore determine congressional representation and federal funding. And it’s happening now.
Were they created in the U.S. by the pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas in the mid-1800s, or much earlier in Europe? Whatever the case, Americans put the modern mixed drink on the map.
16.) Coffee to go
Whether you prefer yours Frappuccino-style (a.k.a. “a sheet cake in a cup”), or as a flat white over ice, America has all the options covered. And no matter your rush, you can always get it to go and take it with you–which is, after all, when you need coffee the most.
17.) Corn on the cob
This quintessential summertime treat was here before most Americans’ ancestors—and today, the U.S. leads the world in corn production. It’s also a key ingredient in bourbon. Any questions?
18.) Dolly Parton
The podcast Dolly Parton’s America was a surprise hit last year—but it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because this dynamic country singer-songwriter is a national treasure. If giving the world “Jolene,” “9-to-5,” and Dollywood weren’t enough, Parton has donated more than 130 million books through her Imagination Library.
19.) Domestic beer
Get out of here with your imports. Whether you prefer a taste of the Rockies or something more hop-ular, only American brew will do.
20.) Drive-in movie theaters
Who knew we’d need them more than ever in 2020? For movies, graduations, and now even live concerts, drive-ins are the (socially distanced) way to go.
21.) Fall leaf peeping
A great American tradition to watch the forests shed their summer greens and put on a multihued display that outstrips even a Monet painting.
Founded in Southern California and found on stages around the world, this guitarmaker’s latest digital moves give us hope that it’ll last for generations to come.
23.) The First Amendment
Freedom of speech. The right of the people to peaceably assemble. Still driving progress in 2020.
24.) Frank Lloyd Wright
The architect who gave the world some of its most beautiful buildings.
25.) Free ice water (at restaurants)
In the U.S., restaurants almost uniformly give you endless cold water in large glasses. That’s the dream.
26.) Frenchmen Street, New Orleans
When the barf-brigade party bros chased the real musicians off of Bourbon Street, this is where a lot of them landed. A great place to hear N.O. brass bands, big band jazz, creole and cajun folk, and everything else that makes up the primal stew of modern American music.
27.) Fruit pies
“American Pie” is a hokey song but American pies are unquestionably delicious.
28.) GMC Hummer EV
The most American vehicle on the planet is revived as a 1,000 horsepower, zero emissions pickup truck. How’s that for a Hollywood-quality comeback story?
29.) The Grateful Dead
The quintessential 1960s hippie band whose mix of rock, blues, bluegrass, and jazz has transcended the decades since. We miss you, Jerry!
The idiosyncratic, delightful, and vaguely threatening mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team is exactly what sports fans need when professional leagues have been sidelined from the pandemic. The roles of America’s superego and ego may be up for debate, but there is little doubt that Gritty is the country’s id.
Historically black colleges and universities have been pillars of the Black community and have given Black Americans the opportunity for higher education when no one else would. From Morehouse and Spelman to Cheyney and Hampton, HBCUs have been, and remain, massive contributors to American culture at large.
32.) High school marching bands
Like a brass-heavy, nonfatal train wreck you just can’t look away from. Who thought this was a good idea? And yet you walk away with an unironic smile on your face. Awesome.
33.) U.S. higher education system
Sure, the financial aspect is a bit…funky, shall we say. (Fortune is, ahem, a family publication.) But the United States is still the uncontested best place in the world to get a college or post-collegiate education. For now: Continuing cuts to public university funding, the increasing parsimony of well-endowed private schools, and restrictions on the ability of international students to come here are looming existential threats to one of America’s most singular advantages.
34.) Hot dogs, corn dogs, and chili cheese dogs (with curly fries and a cherry Coke)
When it comes to the hot dog (née wiener or frankfurther), even COVID-19 can’t stop American demand for cheap meat on a bun. As for corn dogs, we cede the floor to Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram for an anecdote: “I moved to the U.S. when I was in third grade and still remember my first time eating a corn dog for school lunch. I had no idea there would be a hot dog inside when I bit into it. I totally remember my mixture of disgust and pleasure at the discovery, and wonderment for why this concoction was put on a stick to begin with. But to this day it’s one of my favorite memories of my first few days in America.” And a chili cheese dog with curly fries and a cherry Coke? “No other nation on earth could possibly have created this,” our own Geoff Colvin notes. As usual, he’s right.
From the kitchens of New York City’s best restaurants to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, you don’t have to look far to see the immeasurable contributions that immigrants make to life in the United States.
36.) Jazz music
From the pioneering and progressive stylings of Miles Davis to the approachable (if not bland) Kenny G, jazz is a uniquely American creation that resonates with seemingly everyone, from academics to Average Joes. Plus: We wouldn’t have hip-hop as we know it without jazz; numerous hip-hop hits contain jazz samples dating back decades.
37.) Jewish deli food
Cel-Ray soda, whitefish salad, smoked salmon…it’s too good to be true. Our pick? Katz’s Delicatessen, a New York City institution just a brief subway ride away from Fortune headquarters. “I don’t even eat beef and I scarf down an entire pastrami sandwich when I go,” our own McKenna Moore says. “I’ve been craving it from Brooklyn for the entire pandemic!”
38.) Khan Academy
Founded by Louisiana native Salman Khan, this Silicon Valley nonprofit creates free online video lessons covering an array of subjects and available in dozens of languages. A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere? We dig it.
39.) Killer Mike
Killer Mike is a hip-hop artist and social activist whose influential collaborative Run the Jewels has never shied away from tackling issues of systemic inequality, racism, and various other American ills. His songs are bangers and his social justice sermons speak to an American tradition of speaking out on behalf of the oppressed—even if it’s uncomfortable. As protests raged in Atlanta, Killer Mike gave a passionate speech to its city council speaking to the pain of Black Americans while cautioning that residents shouldn’t burn down their cities, especially if such activity afflicts those who are already aggrieved. Why is Killer Mike so interesting? Because the man embodies American contradictions. (He delivered a speech urging peace while wearing a shirt that said “Kill Your Masters.”) Rage and empathy can be a duopoly, but Killer Mike’s lyricism captures the moment and feeling in a way few other things can.
40.) LeBron James
King James overcame inner-city poverty to become the greatest (male) athlete of his generation—as well as an entrepreneur, public educator, and activist.
41.) Leslie Jordan
This Tennessean actor’s Instagram is one of the very few not positively awful things to come out of the pandemic.
42.) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton
How great is a composer-lyricist-composer-actor-rapper who can turn a historical figure—a former Treasury Secretary, no less—into a Broadway sensation? Five-plus years later, the musical Hamilton remains one of the most moving pieces of art Broadway has ever produced—and Miranda its multitalented creator.
It’s practically illegal to be upset when listening to Lizzo’s music. She is the singer-songwriter we needed at this time.
44.) Lobster rolls
Who would ever think that a food once intended for prisoners would be so damn delicious?
45.) Long highways
Call ’em highways, freeways, or turnpikes, but five of the world’s 10 longest such roadways are located in the U.S. And there’s nothing more American than hitting the open road. (See No. 68.)
46.) Mamma Mia
The music of a Swedish music group leads to a British musical that becomes a popular American movie franchise set in Greece. We know.
47.) Marfa, Texas
This little art town in middle-of-nowhere West Texas with a population of less than 2,000 represents the American ability to create something out of nothing and also our love of keeping it weird, even in socially conservative parts of the country.
48.) Marvel Cinematic Universe
It’s as if producers are saying, “We will continue to make these films whether you want to watch them or not.” (But who are we kidding—we will.)
49.) Mel Brooks
A uniquely American spirit, his Borscht Belt humor has defined what comedy means for multiple generations.
50.) Metropolitan Museum of Art
The largest art museum in the U.S. and one of the most-visited in the world. And for locals—New York State residents and students from Connecticut and New Jersey—the price of admission is still “as you wish.”
51.) Mike Trout
Baseball is coming back this month. (We hope.) If the games are actually held, check out Trout—that is, provided he’s willing to take the field. At age 28, the Los Angeles Angel has already established himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will turn 62 this month, and it’s still learning new tricks decades after it first put people on the moon. Witness the launch on May 30 of a private rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station—a historic collaboration with SpaceX (see No. 75).
53.) National Park System & National Seashore
These shining examples of the best of America’s landscape are more than mere parks—they’re national treasures. What’s more, you can visit each (or all 2,000-plus of them) for significantly less than the cost of an Amazon Prime subscription.
54.) New York City
Okay we’re a bit biased—Fortune is headquartered here. Because even when the city that (usually) never sleeps took a bit of a nap during the pandemic, it remained unquestionably the best, most alive city in the world. In lieu of Broadway, people gathered outside of hospitals to conduct standing ovations for health workers. Instead of taxis, bicycles cruised down the middle of Times Square. Even as the city became the early epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., its leaders still read the room—and New Yorkers’ don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-attitude—and stopped short of ordering “shelter in place” (but still convinced enough people to stay home by terming it “NYC on pause”) to shrink COVID-19 case numbers to among the lowest in the country. New York proved that, even besieged, it remains undiminished as the city where anything is possible.
55.) New York Mets
The New York Mets baseball team is, in a way, emblematic of the American spirit itself. We love to root for the underdog. We feel okay booing our own team. And when we do win? Man, it’s great feeling. (Editor’s note: Another great thing about America is the right to vehemently object. Go Phils.)
56.) Night + Market
This popular trio of Los Angeles restaurants led by 37-year-old Kris Yenbamroong is a fiery mashup of Thai street flavors and rock ‘n’ roll swagger—in other words, all American.
57.) Nike sneakers
Nikes are the new jeans.
58.) Old Navy flag T-shirts
The Fourth of July store to end all Fourth of July stores.
59.) Oprah Winfrey
No explanation necessary.
60.) Linguistic optimism
Most languages have far too many tenses—those dedicated to hypotheticals, conditionals, and different times. Americans easily get by with the big three: past, present, and future (and usually just the latter two). It’s a stripped-down confidence no nation can rival.
61.) Prestige TV
Cinema may have originated in Europe, but it took American cinematic genius to create The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and the other series that have arguably topped film when it comes to storytelling power.
62.) Prolific authors
Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, and others keep us wanting more. (And more.)
63.) Public libraries
Even in a time of pandemic, local libraries around the country are meeting the reading and community-gathering needs of patrons, whether through ebook lending, online book groups, or even the distribution of portable Internet hotspots.
64.) Rap music
Built in America, it quickly took over the world. Rap is popular music.
65.) Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays
The prolific Chicago-born playwright’s turf is contemporary politics as seen through the eyes of an upstate New York family, the Apples. Inspired by COVID-19’s transformation of American life, Nelson added to his existing four Apple plays with two that are set during the pandemic and performed from each actor’s home. Both were made available for free viewing online, although donations to support the hard-hit theater community are, as you’d expect, gratefully accepted.
An immigrant from Barbados, Rihanna relocated to the U.S. in 2005 and hasn’t stopped putting out bangers since. As of 2019, she is the world’s wealthiest female musician, according to estimates. Before her 30th birthday, she launched cosmetics brand Fenty (her surname), and the world found love with the now gold standard for superior quality across a broad range of skin tones. Objectively too good for Drake, she’s put in the work, work, work, work, work for humanitarian causes important to her, including Black Lives Matter. So rain or shine, we stand under RiRi’s umbrella.
Coke versus Pepsi. Red Sox versus Yankees. Musk vs. Zuck. In America, rivalries never go out of style.
68.) Road trips
A uniquely American vacation phenomenon—hated by children, loved by adults. Mile after mile of highway monotony (on some of the world’s longest roads; see No. 45), punctuated by stunning scenery, gas stations, greasy food, and history.
69.) Robert Caro
The journalist and author (The Power Broker, The Years of Lyndon Johnson) has demonstrated that he is ready and willing to research the history of our country for decades to unearth stories and bring them to us in an easy-to-understand folksy manner.
Muffulettas. Hot browns. Cheesesteaks. Reubens. Patty melts. Turkey clubs. Travel around the world—or not; thanks, coronavirus—and it’s clear that the U.S. of A. has a clear edge when it comes to the alchemy between two pieces of bread. Brits invented sandwiches; Americans perfected them.
71.) Santa Claus
Sure, Kris Kringle has roots in most of Western Christendom, but the modern incarnation of Saint Nick comes from the 19th-century New York scholar Clement Clarke Moore.
72.) Satellite radio
Though it actually debuted in the Middle East, satellite radio never caught on anywhere like it did in the U.S. It’s a technology that combines Americans’ love of endless choice with our “my car is my home” lifestyle.
73.) Saturday Night Live
SNL: 45 years on TV and better than ever.
74.) Silicon Valley
The area in California, not the satirical television show. (We’ll be sure to save that for another year.) Yes, the Valley has come under fire lately for unethical data-collection practices and a general cavalier attitude toward business, but it remains responsible for some of the biggest technology breakthroughs in history. There’s a reason other countries say their tech hubs are the “Silicon Valley of [insert location here].”
Founder and CEO Elon Musk may have grown up in South Africa, but his Los Angeles–area space company has American astronauts blasting off for space exploration from American soil again.
76.) Spike Lee
The writer-director we need more than ever at this moment in American history is back with a moving new film, Da 5 Bloods. There are plenty of great American directors, but who has poked and prodded and reexamined America and American history with more urgency than Spike?
77.) Spiked seltzer
“It’s just so good.” —An unnamed member of Fortune’s staff
78.) Stephen Colbert
Few comedians are able to capture the absurdity of living in America like the CBS Late Show host.
79.) Steven Spielberg
America’s foremost maestro of blockbuster movies has never gone out of style—but he’s having a moment as rereleases of some of his classic films, Jaws and Jurassic Park, duke it out for the top spot of the box office at drive-ins. (See No. 20.)
80.) Streaming video
Netflix. Amazon Prime. Disney Plus. Hulu. We wouldn’t be watching British crime dramas, or Scandinavian murder mysteries, or Japanese yakuza shows, were it not for this American innovation. America brought it to the world—and now we need it to survive the pandemic.
81.) Summer vacation
American children take it for granted, but other countries—such as Germany—make their kids go to school in the summer.
82.) Tater tots
Whether the trademarked versions by Oregon’s own Ore-Ida or another variety, tots are arguably the most perfect form of potato that exists. Undeniably American, undeniably delicious.
83.) Tex-Mex food
Out of the Rio Grande Valley comes a delicious shared cuisine where Mexico’s tortillas, pico de gallo, and guacamole get friendly with ground beef, beans, and cheese. The ultimate comfort food.
84.) The blues
A uniquely American music form, and the root of most if not all modern music—especially rock ‘n’ roll. It is pain, joy, and poetry wrapped inside repeating progression chords and a soundtrack to the history of America.
85.) The dollar
The world’s reserve currency has given Americans access to immense cheap capital and helped finance our sometimes profligate public spending. But thanks to decades of steady hands on the tiller, the dollar has also given the world a stable, trusted medium of exchange, smoothing the rails for globalization and making everyone richer—including millions of regular people worldwide for whom cash dollars are a valued shelter from unstable local currencies.
86.) The iPhone
Apple’s ubiquitous device that kicked off the smartphone revolution may be manufactured abroad but it was, and still is, “Designed in California.”
87.) The Last Dance
Even if you don’t like basketball or Michael Jordan, the drama and excitement of watching the ascension of the 1990s Chicago Bulls basketball team (complete with the vintage ’90s soundtrack) in this ESPN documentary series will be the best 10 hours you’ll have spent in a long time. Plus: Nothing will make you feel more American than watching MJ in a beret stormed by rabid French fans in Paris.
88.) The Legacy Museum
Located in Montgomery, the museum and accompanying memorial opened in 2018 and was developed by lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative organization to examine slavery and its continuing effects, including the mass incarceration of Black Americans.
89.) The prairie
Sure, New Yorkers might not realize it—but there are thousands of miles of land in this country that are essentially empty. This lush land drove settlers to leave the East Coast and strike out to make their fortunes. Plus: Prairie fashion!
90.) Shopping malls
Nobody else builds temples to retail like Americans do. (Though the competition with parts of Asia is fierce.) Malls arguably peaked in the 1980s, but now the retrograde architecture is part of their charm.
91.) The Simpsons
The Americans didn’t invent satire, but Matt Groening and company took it to another animated level. Turn on the TV in more than 70 countries and you’ll find Homer, Bart, Marge, and Lisa. The Simpsons is American soft power at its best, poking fun at enduring institutions and modern life.
92.) The Smithsonian
The Space Shuttle Discovery and Kermit the Frog are among the 154 million items belonging to “the nation’s attic.” Best of all: Its 19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers, and zoo are open to the public for free.
93.) The stock market
No other country in the world offers the opportunity to make money as easily, and with as little risk, as the United States. You could put all your savings in U.S. stocks, leave them there indefinitely, and come out significantly richer by virtually doing nothing, proven over nearly every medium-term time period.
94.) Theaster Gates
A Chicago-based artist and entrepreneur testing the idea that you can rebuild a ravaged community around visual and performing arts.
95.) U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
Four championships in seven tournaments. A murderer’s row of athletic talent. Pioneers of equal pay. Among the greatest teams that the U.S. has ever fielded in any sport.
96.) U.S. Postal Service
Even as the organization battles for its life, it remains a small miracle that you can send a letter to anyone anywhere in the country for 55 cents. A vital institution for connecting rural Americans to the rest of the country and a force for propelling Black Americans and military veterans into the middle class when private organizations weren’t as up to the task.
97.) Venture capital
It’s not without its shortcomings, certainly. But the American venture capital system, which over the past decade has been adopted as far away as Israel and Japan, has been a great exporter of Americans’ willingness to take risks and innovate. (It’s right there in the name.) We may not have many frontiers left, but capitalism itself can be a great adventure.
98.) Venus & Serena Williams
The Williams sisters changed tennis—and sports!—forever, putting a distinctly American stamp on a game that’s long been associated with upper-crust Europeans.
99.) Willie Nelson
A quintessentially American songwriter who has embraced every genre from Tin Pan Alley to bluegrass to grunge to Aerosmith-style cheez metal. He changed the Nashville sound permanently—then left it all behind for more space (and better marijuana) in his home state of Texas.
100.) Wrigley Field
Old, obsolete, unforgettable.
101.) Yard & garage sales
This American tradition is not only climate-friendly—repurposing things!—but it’s cheap and fun.
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