A recurring theme in U.S. presidential elections is the idea of American exceptionalism. Candidates compete to see who loves American the most, because America is the best, most amazing country in the world. We are the most powerful, we run the world, and we can do no wrong. U.S.A. is number one. Texas Governor Rick Perry said in November that American exceptionalism is the “product of unlimited freedom, and there is nothing troubling our nation today that can’t be solved by the rebirth of freedom… America remains the last best hope for mankind.”
More recently, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said a few weeks ago in an attack against President Obama, “our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we [conservatives] do…you have an opportunity to vote, and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being an American.” President Obama responded by referencing his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, where he gave a speech “that was entirely about American exceptionalism” and declared that “[his] entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.”
Why is it so important, this idea that America is somehow exceptional? We’re better than everyone else; we’re the best country in the world. Even when we’re wrong, we’re right. We know best because we’re America. Where did that idea come from, and why do we keep espousing it?
America is not number one, and contrary to what conservatives might say about me, this does not mean that I hate America or that I am unpatriotic. This is my country. Sometimes I’m very proud to be an American, and sometimes I cringe in shame when we do something stupid. Sometimes I think we’re well-represented by our leaders, and sometimes I think our leaders are an embarrassment. There are some things that the U.S. is very good at, like technology, science, and medicine, and there are some things that we’re really bad at, like infrastructure, education, economics, and at times, even democracy. We have to learn to accept our flaws and look for ways to improve, rather than ignore them. That’s how we learn. And conservatives can call me un-American all they want, but we all know that ignoring a problem only makes it worse.
In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked the United States’ health care system as 37th in the world, behind countries including Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Costa Rica; all other major developed countries ranked significantly higher than the U.S. More recently, in a 2010 study by the Commonwealth Fund, the United States ranked last among seven major industrialized nations: Australia, Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, and the Netherlands, which ranked first.
The U.S. gets the worst value per dollar for health care. We pay twice as much per person for health care as any of the other countries, but score lower on quality, efficiency, access, and overall health. We are also the only major Western country without universal health coverage.
And that’s just healthcare! As of 2005, the U.N. ranked us 12th globally in education. A 2010 study showed the U.S. to be 14th out of 34 countries in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math. Our national credit rating got downgraded six months ago to an AA+, lower than almost all major industrialized nations. Our GDP per capita is ranked 12th in the world.
Despite these gloomy facts, we are good at something: Amnesty International recently announced that we ranked fifth in number of state-sanctioned executions in 2011, in the company of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. We executed more people last year than North Korea. We are the only G8 country to still execute prisoners. We have the second-highest number of nuclear weapons stockpiled, after Russia. And we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
American exceptionalism? Hardly.
So what makes us so special? Is it our bitterly divisive politics? The fact that half this country believes that food, health care, and education are privileges, and that full-fledged citizenship is afforded only to white, wealthy, heterosexual, middle-aged, Christian men? Could it be our bizarre notion that corporations are equal to humans and should be granted full Constitutional rights and responsibilities, except paying taxes? Let’s also consider the fact that not too long ago in Florida an unarmed 17-year-old was shot and killed in the street, and, racial issues aside (that’s an entirely different can of worms), it took over a month to charge the admitted shooter with a crime, partly because of an asinine law that allows you to shoot first and claim self-defense later, and also because of some twisted misunderstanding of the Second Amendment. And don’t even get me started on the Kardashians.
The part of American society that I take issue with the most is our total refusal to consider learning from other countries. The U.S. isn’t even 250 years old. Compared to a lot of the world, we’re still a baby country. We’re immature. We’re like a bratty teenage girl: “I know best and you don’t understand and I can do whatever I want and what do you mean ‘the U.N. says no’ I’m gonna do it anyway because I can!”
America is a great country. We are one of the most powerful, influential, and wealthy countries in the world. We have the largest economy in the world, one of the largest populations, and a 99% literacy rate (as of 2003). The U.S. is a country where we as citizens are free to disagree with and publicly criticize our government and leadership without fear of government retribution. We can petition our leaders through protests, recalls, and other outreach efforts, like we’ve been doing in Wisconsin. Americans have access to some of the best health care and education in the world. People come here from all over the world to escape oppressive regimes or seek better opportunities. I do love living here, and I’m proud to be an American.
But loving my country and having pride in my country does not mean that I have to believe that my country is perfect. It’s not. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to stop being so insistent that we are. Because when you think that you’re perfect, you also think there’s nothing to change and nothing to learn, and we have a lot to learn. We’re a great country but we are not necessarily the very best the world has to offer, and who are we to decide that we deserve that position? There isn’t a singular best country in the world. We need to stop fixating on being number one and focus on what is best for the citizens of this nation.
And taking the question of “who loves America most” out of the equation of presidential campaigns might be a good place to start.