The notion of “exceptionalism” in the United States has come to mean that we are a nation of such far-above-the-norm excellence socially, politically and economically compared with the other countries of the world, that “our way” deserves their admiration of, if not their allegiance to, our policies and pronouncements. And those in America who might have the temerity to suggest otherwise are quickly branded by exceptionalists as anything from unpatriotic to downright treasonous.
So perhaps a few statistics are in order to better determine the actual extent of our exceptionalism. These come from the International Monetary Fund’s comparisons of 33 countries judged to enjoy “advanced economies.” Their sources are our own CIA, our Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Economist, Gallup, Unicef, King’s College London’s World Prison Brief, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment. These results of the IMF survey were printed in The New York Times, which one can dismiss as biased but only in the fact of their publishing the survey, not its contents.
Let’s start with the myth that the U.S. has the best medical care system in the world, a claim heard often and loudly largely from Republicans against the Obama attempts to reform U.S. healthcare. Surely a longer life expectancy ought to signify a better system. Of the 33 countries, the U.S. ranked 26th on this measure. So why not join the Republican attempts to repeal the recently passed healthcare reform and let’s see how far down the list we can go? Maybe if people would just die sooner, we can meet the Republican’s cost-cutting rationale for their opposition, when in fact, they simply despise any program in which the government makes an attempt to help people in need.
Moving on to “income inequality” which measures how widely the income of the wealthiest exceeds that of the poorest, our land of equal opportunity for all ranks 30th out of 32 measured. So by all means, let’s continue our Republican sponsored tax breaks for the rich, since there are still two governments that seem to do a better job of helping the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (Hong Kong and Singapore, in case you’re interested). The Republicans will tell you that raising anyone’s taxes in a struggling economy will reduce employment. Economists overwhelmingly will tell you that raising taxes on the wealthiest will do no such thing.
But honestly, how many really poor people are there in the U.S.? Well, a good measure of that might be the percentage of a country’s population that feels it does not have enough money for food in a given year. On that question, statistics were only available for 20 countries. We tied for 18th worst. That still leaves us a least a little room for joining the Tea Party ‘s calls for eliminating food support for the poor since in their anarchist viewpoint, any government program is a bad program except Medicare and Social Security, government programs which they want the government to keep its hands off.
Given these results, it should not be surprising that in measuring a population’s sense of wellbeing, we might not do so well either. Of the 30 countries surveyed, we came in tied for 18th. If Mr. Obama is looking for a bipartisan issue, he and his predecessor can share the responsibility for this one, Mr. Bush’s contributions being a war of choice in Iraq and letting our financial institutions run wild and Mr. Obama’s being a war of choice in Afghanistan and change we are still waiting for.
Nor should we be surprised that our unemployment rate is higher than 24 of the 33 countries. After all, the epicenter of the current economic crisis runs along a fault line from Washington to Wall Street. And while the Bush administration and so-called conservative Republican policies detonated the meltdown, both parties now vie for who can make the most ignorant economic pronouncements from an essentially braindead Congress.
But perhaps we can take some heart in our proclamations of exceptionalism when we look at law enforcement. Here we rank number one, with twice as good a record as the runner-up. The only problem is that the measure used counts the number of citizens per 100,000 of population who are in prison. The questions is, are Americans that much more venal than people in the rest of the world, or are our laws so ridiculous as to imprison people for relatively minor offenses?
We might also find things looking up when we consider the ranking of our students in science, which is the only category in which we were in the top half of the list — barely — coming in at 14th out of 30. But then there is math to consider, where we rank tied for 24th out of 30 — still room enough below us to enact the draconian cuts in education now being promoted in practically every state and municipality and no doubt will also be demanded by Republican-cum-Tea-Party members of Congress in the federal budget.
At least that leaves us our democracy as the beacon of government by consent of the governed, shining its light on the rest of the world. Well, not exactly. When measuring the level of democracy enjoyed by the populaces of the 33 countries, 16 other governments rate higher than ours in ostensibly caring about, hearing, and acting on the vox populi (including the Czech Republic, for heaven’s sake!).
All of which adds up to what? That there are many better countries to live in than the U.S.A.? Not at all. Only that we’re not the exceptional nation the jingoists (mostly Republicans and their rightwing talking heads) would have us believe. Maybe we used to be a great country that others should emulate, and could be again. But first we have to accept the facts about ourselves, and stop listening to the bullshit we hear from politicians and the media from both sides of the aisle, especially from you-know-which-one.