American Exceptionalism

The question Is the United States Still the World’s Best Country? is a rather idiosyncratic question that immediately presents multiple presuppositions—the most prominent of which being that it is indisputable that the United States, at least, was ‘once’ the world’s best country. Now, even our proudest countrymen cannot deny that we have experienced a decline, but the question is still a leading one. For it leads us Americans into considering what the most American of traits are; determination, resilience, and leadership are what should come to mind if years of spoonfed nationalism has effectively been ingrained into us. The very fact that the question is Is the United States the World’s Best Country? and not What is the World’s Best Country? implies that the United States is still the answer. There are no alternatives because no other country has proven that it can protect, monitor, and save the world all at the same time.

This is the doctrine that American politicians want you to believe and this is the doctrine that they live and die by. To suggest that the United States could learn a thing or two from other countries is risky in itself, to suggest that the United States is not number one is treason. But why is this and why is it such a sensitive topic for Americans? It’s as if we’re the 28-year old guy at the bar who never fails to mention within 5 minutes of meeting someone that he led the varsity basketball team in scoring as a sophomore. We’ve said and heard it so many times that we cannot imagine an existence in which we do not constantly reaffirm it. And even when we do not use the direct phrase America is the best, our not-so-subtle jabs at those ‘socialist Europeans’ just come off as naïve. Americans retort that those ‘unpatriotic Americans’ who do not consider the United States to be the best can simply ‘love it or leave it,’ yet those who raise objections to how the country handles itself are merely trying to raise awareness regarding areas that can be improved upon in a country that they care for deeply. A country that, lo and behold, has a number of areas that it can improve upon.

In HBO’s Newsroom, anchorman Will McAvoy is asked the question What Makes America the Greatest Country in the World? and he goes on a rant that includes a piercing quote for lovers of statistics, “There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending—where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.” Professor of Philosophy Stephen D. Hales totes similar findings in a study that, after considering freedom, literacy, health, happiness, and standard of living, finds Norway to actually be the world’s best country leaving the United States well-behind in a distant 13th. Norway is eight times less violent than the United States, in Sweden you can expect to live four years longer and their infant mortality rates are close to two and a half times better than ours, only South Africa and Britain have as little mobility across generations as the United States, and Norway again puts up stalwart-like numbers with a poverty rate that is a third of the United States.

So, statistically, America is not the world’s best country—to claim otherwise is simply inaccurate. That does not mean that people should not take pride in the United States, nor does it even mean that one has to believe that America isn’t the best country for them. For many, the United States suits their needs and represents what they love most in the entire world—whether it be a particular hobby, person, or custom. What can go awry, however, is when Americans use their perceived superiority to justify ‘the right to do things that other nations do not [have the right to do]’.

Usually this is the result of oversimplification: Americans are good and others are bad. Our nukes are good and others are bad. Our spying is good and others are bad. The list goes on and on—something Glenn Greenwald calls ‘the crux of hypocrisy’.

George Orwell perhaps sums it up best in saying, “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

Alas, like Orwell says, we too often turn a blind-eye to the morally impermissible things that our country does or stands for and then go on to ridicule other countries for the very same thing.

The numbers suggest that the happiest and healthiest countries have higher taxes and spread the wealth. Additionally the world’s most successful countries, Northern European ones, do not rely on what Hales calls ‘faith-based initiatives’, but rather “Instead they take seriously the notion—as we once did—that it is the people, working collectively through their government, who shoulder the burden for improving the lot of their fellow citizens”. To that, all I can say is the numbers don’t lie, but good luck convincing an American electorate that responds much more favorably to the term ‘individualism’ than ‘collectivism’ to suddenly revolt against low taxation.

Numbers aside though, what Americans can do is rather than ponder the question of Are We Still the Best (ironically a question that no other country seems to care about—even the ones who are statistically beating us!) we can simply consider how we can improve. If we truly want to embrace individualism and distinguish ourselves from Europe, maybe raising taxes isn’t the obvious solution. What we must do, however, is not let being American cloud our judgment—if we want anyone to respect the rules of the game then we have to play by them ourselves. Or, in light of recent events, at the very least do a better job of concealing our shortcuts. Our actions should reflect that we are American because we are good rather than we are good because we are American. A few adjustments could steer the United States in the right direction, and imagining this country truly hitting its stride surely has to give the Vikings over in Norway a run for their money.