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An American flag in front of a damaged school area in Dayton, Ohio on May 28, 2019. (Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

American 'Exceptionalism?' Yes, But Not in a Good Way

It can be painful to acknowledge the stone-cold truth that we are indeed exceptional, but by many measures, not in ways we can celebrate.

Frances Moore LappéMax Boland

Americans' long-held view of ourselves as the world's "best everything" stands in the way of progress. So, here's my question: Can we absorb our true standing and be motivated—rather than demoralized—by learning from nations that are doing better?

Attributing our democracy's crisis solely to Trump's impact can blind us to causes of disaffection that are not political but are everyday reality for millions.

It is an urgent question because America is in trouble…as you probably don't need me to tell you. 

In early January, seven out ten of Americans surveyed agreed U.S. democracy was "in crisis and at risk of failing." Here's alarming evidence backing up the grim assessment. 

Whereas in 1995 one in fifteen of us approved "of the idea of having the army rule," by 2014 the share had grown to one in six. Most disturbing, in December one in three Americans agreed that "violence against the government is sometimes justified."

Reading these sentiments, what probably pops to mind for most of us is the 2021 violent assault on our Capitol. But rushing to that frightening day forces us to jump over colossal negative shifts in our culture that have been growing over decades. 

Attributing our democracy's crisis solely to Trump's impact can blind us to causes of disaffection that are not political but are everyday reality for millions.

It can be painful to acknowledge the stone-cold truth that we are indeed exceptional, but by many measures, not in ways we can celebrate. 

The United States is the 14th happiest country in the World, lagging far behind Switzerland, Germany, and the Nordic countries.

We may take solace in being ranked at least near the top, but for America to be truly "exceptional," shouldn't we be leading the pack?

From our health and education to our safety and well-being, we have not lived up to our self-image as "the world's best."

We fail to meet the needs of our fellow Americans, even from birth.  Forty-five countries have achieved lower infant mortality rates than we have. We also fail at providing equity in health outcomes, as the maternal mortality rate for Black women in 2019 was two and a half times higher than white women.

In our schools, we have failed to give our students the education they need to become the leaders of the future. In a standardized test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to samples of 15-year-old students from around the world, the United States ranked 30th out of 79 countries in math.

Our often-renowned higher education system also fails America's students.

We rank eighth among 46 OECD countries in percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree, but our government invests nearly $4,000 more per student. Couple that with skyrocketing student debt to cover the inflated cost of a 4-year degree, and it is clear that we are not getting enough bang for our buck.

How can the state of our democracy be strong when our people aren't getting the care, education, and safety they need to be "exceptional" in their own lives?

Americans are also deprived of the safety we all need, as violent crimes have been on the rise since the pandemic. The US has a higher homicide rate than over 100 nations, including Myanmar and Lebanon, both of which have Level 4 travel advisories from the Department of State warning about crime and civil unrest.

How can the state of our democracy be strong when our people aren't getting the care, education, and safety they need to be "exceptional" in their own lives?

Our extreme economic disparities also reveal a lot about our democracy deficits. Why? A grounding premise of democracy is equal vote and thus equal voice, expressed in electing representatives to promote our "general welfare"—what is set forth in the preamble of the Constitution as a prime goal of our nation. 

On the surface, it's hard to imagine that any political body in which citizens hold power would choose policies generating today's gross disparities. Here is one measure of its depth: Together 90 percent of Americans strive to make do on less total wealth than that in the hands of the wealthiest 1 percent.

And in income disparity? 

Here, it has become more extreme than that in more than 100 nations, reports the World Bank. Our gap between income classes is wider than, for example, in Bulgaria and Haiti.

Now, the question: Once motivated by both alarm at our failure as well as inspiration from nations demonstrating that positive change in our personal and political lives is possible, what can American citizens do?

Fortunately, an unprecedented movement of movements for democracy reform now offers many opportunities. Americans with a range of core concerns—from healthcare to racial justice and income inequality—grasp that solutions require accountable democracy. So, the big push for voting-rights legislation that came close to passage last month is not dead.

The Democracy Initiative—an extensive coalition of organizations—and our organization, Small Planet Institute, cosponsor a handy tool for finding your pathway to meaningful action. Jump to www.DemocracyMovement.US and discover many avenues for becoming a democracy champion. Now!

As Dee Hock observed years ago, "It is far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

max

Max Boland

Max Boland is the Democracy Writing and Research Associate at Small Planet Institute and a graduate of the University of Virginia with a bachelor's in American Government and Politics. His interests include civic education, judicial policy, and political history.

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