Exceptional American Exceptionalism

For decades, Americans have been fed a steady diet of gentle propaganda that is meant to perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism. That America is the best, the strongest, the brightest, the healthiest, the richest, the fairest, the smartest, the most democratic. The list goes on, and while one can understand the average citizen grasping for this perceived balm for the soul of a country tortured by inequality, violence, and a decidedly regressive march (and not the glorious atavistic one promised by MAGA), one wonders if the purveyors of this fiction have also started believing it so much so that they will brook no dissent on its authenticity.

You have to wonder where we’re living where questioning this wisdom is considered heresy at best, unpatriotic and treasonous at worst. Well, call me heretical and unpatriotic as I enumerate the dubious ways in which I believe we truly are exceptional today. This post was prompted by a thoughtful op-ed by Kristoff in the NYT from which I quote, “The newest Social Progress Index, …. finds that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.”

If I’m reading that correctly, it suggests that the US has had the largest decline in quality of life for its people, in a group of 163 countries.

Now, that is quite exceptional!

There are numerous studies and research reports that should have put paid to the notion of our exceptionalism across several of the vectors mentioned above. I link to several sources below, but will ask my reader to consider this:

  • Health — yes, we have the most exceptional healthcare available in this country. But we also have the worst outcomes for comparably high income countries. And outcomes for middle class whites have worsened in recent decades. The U.S. spends more on health care than any other high-income country but has the lowest life expectancy — think about that.

For a sense for just how exceptional our health outcomes are in the US, or how the last few decades have affected people enough to cause “deaths of despair”, read the gravely disturbing book by the same name, authored by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case, which painstakingly researches and documents how whites without a college degree have fared and the crushing outcome of their despair — deaths by suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuses.

And of course, you only need to follow how devastating Covid-19 has been to the US compared with other countries to know how terribly we’ve coped with the health crisis of this century so far.

  • Education — sure, our universities are often regarded as the most exceptional on the planet. But the quality of our education for the average American lags many and is not enabling a knowledge driven-economy or future.
  • Free Press — our Press, is neither completely free, nor a protector of our democracy. What is of genuine concern in recent years is how easily it has been co-opted into the political process and where unwilling to go along, been brow-beaten and near-cowed by the powers that be. Where the corp standing between the average citizen and authoritarianism is now largely hated by and mistrusted by citizens. This is no accident — it’s the result of a concerted effort by those in power, a problem exacerbated by the proliferation of easily manipulated social media.
  • Security — the most powerful military ever assembled (thanks, Ike and Truman, for helping create and then (too late) denouncing the military-industrial complex). But while we’re very capable of annihilating entire countries or even the world at large with our fearsome nuclear arsenal, we struggle to keep our average citizens safe right here at home. And no, I’m not talking only of suburban white people. I’m talking about everyone, including blacks and Latinos who are disproportionately incarcerated in the US. We imprison at the highest rate in the ‘free’ world (ahead even of such beacons of freedom as Russia, Ukraine, S Africa), and yet have the highest rates of murder, drug crimes and of course, our permanent scourge — mass shootings in schools or otherwise, by gunmen run amok.
  • Mental health — while not #1, we have a reasonable number of mental health professionals per capita in the US. But our population is plagued by anxiety, depression, dependence on pharmaceuticals and despite the misplaced belief that we’re the best, a malaise of hopelessness and despair. See data here for a not-so-pretty picture of Americans’ mental wellbeing.
  • Food — many of the biggest global food brands call the US home, so perhaps in that commercial sense we’re exceptional. But when it comes to the quality of our food, or even the sheer number of Americans who are ‘food insecure’ any given day, our standing is astoundingly poor. 1 in 9 Americans struggle with hunger regularly. In the richest country in the world in history.
  • Upward Mobility — a standard refrain of my friends on the Right is about how the US is the ultimate land of opportunity, and anyone who actually wants to make it, can, as long as they make the effort. This nostrum has kept the genuine and well-placed angst of millions at bay, under the false belief that each of them can become Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. So, they blissfully continue to vote greedy, deceitful real estate magnates and the like in, while perpetuating their own social stasis or worse, decline.

The truth is that the US is not even in the Top 10 countries for upward mobility. We’re 27th! And several of the western European nations which are decried for their socialism as crushing all aspirations and mobility, are actually way higher than the US.

  • Income inequality — every time you bring this up with someone on the Right, they will point to some arcane report or statistic about how either 1) inequality hasn’t really gone up or 2) how inequality actually doesn’t have deleterious effects, but to get a sense for what it is really like, read this analysis here. And this wonderfully researched post to get a sense for the staggering scale of what we’ve lost because of this chronic and rapidly escalating inequality in our society. An estimated $50 trillion redistributed upward in the last four decades.

Nations (and empires) rise and fall as reliably as the tides of the ocean and none is immune. The first step to healing is to stop denying where we are and where we’ve come from. This land has been inimical to a vast number of its citizens but it’s up to us collectively to change this going forward.

Forget about MAGA, forget the chants of “We’re #1”, forget about our purported exceptionalism. Can we just focus on making us ‘good enough’ to start with, stop living this fantasy and create a country that is just, peaceful and equitable and genuinely cares for its citizens?

And not just the top 5% of them.

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