Let me be clear. This is not an attack on America. This is an attack on bravado and denial of the facts. What makes America great is greatness. The moment at which we stop manifesting greatness, we can no longer make the claim. Which is better, for America to be great, or for America to think it is great?
American exceptionalism should be about humble strength not ideological chest thumping. To borrow a phrase, America should “speak softly and carry a big stick”. We live in an era of superficiality and false fame. The list of “stars” who have contributed nothing to society and demonstrate little or no talent grows longer each day. This points to a trend in America where it is better to appear great than to be great.
America on the whole is the greatest nation in the world. We have many flaws, but we still possess the strongest economy and the hardest working most productive people in the world. The list of American superlatives is too long to enumerate, but what is increasingly concerning is the growing list of items where America is not exceptional.
The longer this list becomes, the weaker we become. Ignoring the truth, denying the truth, failing to address our problems only serves to weaken our country. The modern right believes that amplifying the idea of American exceptionalism is the way to express love of country. True love of country, like true love of our children, our spouses, our friends, is recognizing problems when they arise and helping to solve these problems. It is this kind of love which must be applied to our nation.
Let’s take a look at a few examples that demonstrate ways our exceptionalism is fading.
For the first time in our nation's history, the current generation is not expected to do better than their parents. This is truly historical, truly shocking, and potentially truly demoralizing to America's middle class. What’s more, America, the land of opportunity, has fallen behind many European nations on the critical measure of upward mobility. In short, if you are born in many European nations, you are more likely to do better than your parents and rise in class status than if you are born in America. Whether you find yourself on the right or the left, this should be deeply troubling. Here are a few more facts that highlight just how troubling things truly are:
Childhood Poverty: America has the highest childhood poverty in the industrialized world.
Healthcare: Our healthcare system is currently ranked 37th in the world.
- Math: American high school students now rank 25th worldwide.
- Science: American high school students now rank 17th worldwide.
- Reading: American high school students now rank 14th worldwide.
Infant Mortality Rate: According to the CIA, America is 177th of 223 nations. To turn that number around, we rank 46th best.
Women Holding Elected Office: America ranks 72nd in the world on the number of women who hold office in our national parliament/congress.
Infrastructure Spending: The US is spending 2 percent of it’s GDP on infrastructure, but Europe spends 5 percent, China spends 9 percent.
Income Inequality: The US is 39th in the world. We rank worse than Iran, Kenya, Cambodia, Russia and China.
There are any number of facts like these that could be cited, but you get the point, this simply isn’t good enough. What is even more troubling than the rankings themselves, are the issues associated to the rankings. We are falling behind in math and science. We are falling behind in infrastructure. Our healthcare costs are rising while our overall quality of care is declining. Increasingly, hard work no longer pays. In many key areas that point to our ability to compete now and into the future, we are falling behind. In order to remain the exceptional nation we are, we must not only stay on top, but we must stay on top on the issues that matter most.
In order to address the problems, we have to acknowledge that they exist. In order to do so, we must move away from hyper partisanship. We must stop ignoring our very real problems and instead face them. No conservative could deny the unique ability American has to solve the toughest problems, but in order to do so we need solutions, not rhetoric.. We must challenge conservatives to move away from rhetorical exceptionalism and get them in the fight to restore and reinvigorate America’s actual exceptionalism. Our only answer can’t be “no”.
Kennedy said that “we do this things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. We must return to this ideal. America has always tackled the tough tasks, the difficult problems. The moment we stop doing the hard things is the moment we stop being the exceptional America we hear so much about.