American Exceptionalism Goes Negative

Greatness does not last. Glory is always fleeting. Consider the United States of America.

For a long time, the U.S.A. was truly great. All the way from before its founding as a single polity through to the first decades after the Second World War, the American Dream – freedom, justice and opportunity – lived and prospered. Without much exaggeration, this country was the grand laboratory of what Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (he basically meant white people, of course).

The country was so magnificent that it almost seemed to deserve being called America, as if it could usurp a title which rightly belonged to two whole continents. And this America was indeed exceptional, a noble experiment which involved far more than the abolition of traditional nobility. More than in any other state, in the United States prosperity, social flexibility and seemingly infinite ingenuity walked hand-in-hand through history.

As the natural home of the world’s most ambitious, restless and oppressed people, America’s manifest destiny was global, and the country took up, often grudgingly, this burden of history. By the middle of the 20th century the extraordinary American military sheltered allies and enforced the U.S. will in every continent. The dollar was almighty, the new gold standard. Perhaps most significant was the triumph of the American way of life. The nation’s fashions – in clothing, music, cinema, ideas and mores – often became the world’s.

Or course, the American dream was always in large part fictional. Ask Native Americans about freedom and justice or African-Americans about equal opportunity. The world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were rarely welcomed warmly and eventually migration was sharply limited. Wretched poverty, economic oppression and environmental devastation were common. Americans became imperialists and the country was often a fertile breeding-ground for know-nothing prejudices.

Still, as recently as the 1980s, it was at least possible to argue seriously that America was an exceptional nation, and far more for the good than for the bad.

No longer.

The United States still stands out among the developed economies, but almost always for its troubles. Among these nations, it has – by far:

· The highest proportion of the population in prison, formerly in prison and likely to go to prison

· The most gun violence, with an especially privileged position in mass shootings

· The most expensive and least comprehensive healthcare system

· The highest rates of death from drug abuse

· The worst trends in life expectancy, obesity and maternal heath

· The worst system of labour protection (in terms of job tenure, guaranteed holidays, parental leave, minimum wage, etc.)

· The least equitable and effective system of constitutional government

· The most corrupt ties of business and government

· The least successful military (in terms of achieving of durable peace and influence), despite being by far the largest.

These are only the most outstanding national failures. The country is towards the bottom of the rankings, although not always clearly the worst, in other significant domains:

· The financial system is unusually crisis-prone and unusually inefficient

· Intergenerational social mobility is unusually low

· Tertiary education is unusually costly and unusually unhelpful for the poor

· Inequality of income and wealth is unusually high

· The legal system is unusually large and expensive, unusually harsh on the poor and unusually kind to the rich

· Roads and bridges are in unusually poor condition

· Mass transit is unusually scarce

· Broadband service is unusually expensive

Of course, the country’s negative exceptionalism is also partly fictional. It has to be. There was a lot of greatness in the United States, and it does not disappear overnight. Consider:

· American English is still the global language

· The U.S. is still often a global trend-setter in popular culture,

· The U.S. still has a disproportionate share of the world’s leading universities

· The U.S. is still a global leader in scientific and technological research.

· The U.S. military is still the most powerful in the world and its weapons are the most technologically advanced.

· The United States is probably still the country that would attract the most poor people, if they were allowed to choose freely

· Most of the leading internet-related companies are American (the rest are Chinese and are not large forces globally)

The list is impressive, but all but the last of those accomplishments are legacies of past greatness, types of superiority which can endure long after their cultural and economic sources have dried up.

Overall, American exceptionalism has reversed. The United States is now the model for a failing developed economy.

What has gone wrong? The answer cannot to something small. It is not simply the unrepresentative electoral college, the rise of the Supreme Court, the decline of labour unions, the excessive power of lobbyists or even the sum of all these and a hundred other specific failures. No, so much has gone so badly wrong in so many dimensions of American life that the explanation for the new exceptionalism must a great failure of the old American dream, or perhaps several interlocking and reinforcing deep failures.

The cultural critics are on the case, of course. A short list of suggestions includes particularly rampant individualism or materialism, toxic racism, something about American religion, the brevity of American history, the hubris of Manifest Destiny and faulty American ideas about something basic – perhaps freedom, order, authority or truth.

Whatever the causes of the change, the world must deal with the effects. But before action comes understanding. While the American Dream has not turned into an absolute nightmare, the country’s established ways and new experiments should no longer assumed to be good for the nation or a model for the world. On the contrary, they should be treated with suspicion.

Once this hard truth has been accepted, it will be clear that big changes are required. Non-Americans can no longer rely on a Pax Americana, so they need to find their own diplomatic and military ways. The dollar is becoming a toxic tool of irrational U.S. foreign policy, so they need to create a new global currency system. Most important, and probably most difficult, the world needs to find new intellectual, artistic and cultural leaders.

These tasks are daunting, but the Americans themselves face a far greater challenge. They have to get used to not being the greatest, and then try to change their ways to match their diminished status.

The British fell from roughly similar global glory in the first half of the 20th century, so there is a model to follow. At best, the precedent is discouraging. The British national admission of failure took several decades, and now, at least 50 years later, the rhetoric surrounding the planned departure from the European Union suggests continuing resistance to the new ideas of the nation, its ways and its role in the world.

If the Americans follow a similar pattern, the post-American-century could be very difficult.

August 10, 2019