‘American Exceptionalism’ as Conversation Stopper

Lane KenworthyThe Sociologist Lane Kenworthy wrote a very interesting article a few months back (via Mark Thoma), America Is Exceptional… and Ordinary. He framed it interestingly, “To some, ‘exceptional’ doesn’t just mean different; it means best. To others it means worst. As we’ll see, America is both.” But I do think that’s where he gets the idea wrong. “American exceptionalism” is not about how we compare to other countries. The point is that America should never be compared to other countries. And this is why in general, the idea of American exceptionalism is not used by those complaining about the country. They are interested in comparing so the whole conception of exceptionalism gets in the way of seeing America clearly.

But Kenworthy presents a lot of data. It all compares the US to the other advanced economies that we normally think of ourselves as being comparable to: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. And much of the data is damned sobering. Americans like to make a big deal of us being the richest country — but that’s mostly due to our size. We aren’t even the richest per capita — that title goes to Norway.

Our poor are worse off that most of the other countries… Our incomes are by far the most unequal. And interestingly, ours is the only one that has seen that inequality go up substantially since the 2008 financial crisis.

When you look at per capita GDP growth, you see that over the last 35 years, we’ve done pretty much exactly as well as other countries that haven’t seen their workers’ rights savaged and who haven’t seen their income inequality skyrocket. These are also countries that manage to provide healthcare to all their citizens. Perhaps the most amazing thing at the last Republican debate was that Donald Trump said what is only too clear that Republican elites believe: that in order for America to be competitive, the middle class must see its standard of living drop: “wages too high.”

Our poor are worse off that most of the other countries: Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland, and Sweden. Our incomes are by far the most unequal. And interestingly, ours is the only one that has seen that inequality go up substantially since the 2008 financial crisis. In 1980, we were by far the best educated country, but now eight countries beat us. And they beat us not because we are doing worse, but because they have continued to improve while we’ve allowed ourselves to stagnate. Because you know what we learned at that time: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

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We spend roughly twice what all the other countries do on healthcare. And we manage to do this without even covering all of our people. In 1980, we spent the most on healthcare, but we were still part of the pack. At that time, we were in the middle of the pack in terms of life expectancies. Now that we are spending vastly more on healthcare, but our life expectancy has dropped to dead last. That doesn’t mean our life expectancies haven’t gone up. It is just that the other countries have seen theirs go up a lot more. Those countries, it would seem, do not think that government “is the problem.”

When you look at what percentage of us work (between the ages of 25 and 64), we are in the bottom half. Those other countries generally make it easier to be unemployed. According to conservative dogma, they should have a lot more people unemployed. But they don’t. We tax (and spend) very little, yet this hasn’t caused companies to go crazy hiring people. So much for supply side economics! I assume our poor employment numbers have something to do with a lack of demand. The middle class isn’t getting its fair share of the economy, so it can’t buy stuff that others would make. And the reason the middle class isn’t getting its fair share has a lot to do with the abysmal shape of our labor unions — only Korea is worse.

We’re the most religious country by a wide margin, but that is going down. We are the most punitive, and that is still going up (but at a reduced rate). In this land of immigrants, we are only in the middle of the pack when it comes to the foreign-born share of the population. And listening to the Republican presidential debates, you don’t get the impression that we are moving in a positive direction. And don’t believe what Republicans sometimes say about just being against illegal immigration; the truth is, Conservatives Hate All Immigrants.

Although Lane Kenworthy started his article saying that the US was exceptional in both good and bad ways, almost all of the data indicate that it is exceptional in bad ways. But as I said: it doesn’t matter. When people talk about “American exceptionalism” they use it in the same way they use “support the troops.” It is a way of stopping people from talking about the issues involved. The true “American exceptionalism” that they are pushing is the idea that America is the best by definition. And that is pretty much the only way that America can be the best. In almost every other way, we look pretty bad.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “‘American Exceptionalism’ as Conversation Stopper

  1. God, I don’t even know where this phrase “exceptionalism” came from. It’s bananas.

    I keep thinking of our media propaganda in the 1980s about how lousy life was in Soviet satellite states. If you lived in Poland, you had a shitty apartment where nothing ever worked and you couldn’t get Gap jeans. America rules! We have all kinds of jeans! And Billy Idol on the radio!

    Income inequality and deregulation have made life, for most Americans, far worse than life for people under Communism. Gee, wasn’t trying to wander through the madness of Soviet bureaucracy a hellish nightmare? Try calling your phone company in America today. Or your cable company. Or Internet provider. Or health insurer. At least we have the free market to ensure competition makes prices fall by natural magic — oh, wait, your phone/cable/Internet provider is all the same company. And your health insurers all collude to keep prices exactly the same.

    Humankind has dreamed of being able to fly for hundreds of thousands of years. Now we can fly, and it’s a hellacious sardine-can ordeal. Half of “jet lag” isn’t adjusting to time changes, it’s decompressing from the stress of being on a plane. Thanks, airline deregulation!

    And don’t get me started on landlords. They’re basically operating without any restrictions whatsoever. Sure, every city has local codes about what landlords should provide. Since almost all of them ignore these codes (especially if the buildings house Black people) cities cannot enforce the codes. Tenants are scared to call in complaints — what if it comes back that you’re the one complaining? (Why don’t we have posters at the entrance of every rented property listing a hotline you can call if your landlord is refusing to fix the stove, shower, toilet, roof, windows?)

    Pretty much every piece of American life is now a dystopian disaster (well, not for rich people.) It’s worse than life in 1980’s Poland. However, you can still go to the mall and buy Gap jeans, so I guess that’s a plus.

    I believe we think of our gizmos as signifying progress. Almost everyone in America has the Internet now, almost everyone has a smartphone. Hence capitalism works. These things are not progress. They are nifty enjoyable gizmos. They aren’t health care, they aren’t vital utilities or a safe living space. They aren’t a fucking job, or a way to avoid being put into our “criminal justice” system (which beats the old Communist gulags for its sheer cruelty.)

    What kind of maniacs think we’re exceptional? Unless they mean that, for a powerful and wealthy nation, we’re exceptional in how rotten life is for our citizens. (But they don’t mean that.)

    • I had always assumed it started with de Tocqueville, and according to Wikipedia, I am right. The thing is, as much as people quote him, I think he didn’t understand America very well at all.

      I remember some conservative putting down Garrison Keillor for saying that maybe we should have the state do some things because the cigarettes in the Soviet Union were quite good. The conservative shot back, “Then why are Marlboro cigarettes such a big deal in the Soviet Union?” Well, because advertising works. Marlboro was great at making cigarettes seem cool. Which is exactly the point that Keillor was making: maybe it isn’t a good idea to have drug addiction advertised for.

      I think you might be a little extreme in your rant there, but I agree with much of it. There really is almost no difference between an mp3 player (or Pandora) and a transistor radio. What’s more, we’ve lost just as we’ve gained.

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