We’re Far From Number One

These days, in the aftermath of the “former guy’s” administration, Americans seem intent upon tearing the country apart. It has become impossible to ignore the reality that approximately a third of our fellow Americans are–excuse the language–bat-shit crazy, and that the people they vote for range from self-interested panderers (Indiana’s Todd Young just announced he will run again) to delusional fellow-travelers.

On the other hand, the rest of us are (slowly and reluctantly) coming to terms with realities we have previously ignored or downplayed. It is no longer possible to evade recognition of the extent to which racism has infected our politics and dictated our policies, for example. And our naive belief in “American exceptionalism” turns out to be our very own version of The Emperor Has No Clothes.

Last September’s release of the Social Progress Index reported that– out of 163 countries– the United States, Brazil and Hungary were the only ones in which people were worse off than when the index began measuring such things in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

As Nicholas Kristof noted in the New York Times,  the United States, despite our immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranked a sad 28th — having slipped from a not-exactly-impressive 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.

The Social Progress Index finds that Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A majority of countries have lower homicide rates, and most other advanced countries have lower traffic fatality rates and better sanitation and internet access.

We lag in sharing political power equally among all citizens, and we rank a shameful number 100 in discrimination against minorities. (Note: that isn’t 100th in eradicating discrimination; that’s a rank of 100 among the most discriminatory.)

And those metrics were before COVID.  Since social scientists tell us that inclusive, tolerant and better educated societies are better able to manage pandemics, that doesn’t bode well for upcoming rankings. Kristof concludes by saying

We Americans like to say “We’re No. 1.” But the new data suggest that we should be chanting, “We’re No. 28! And dropping!”

Let’s wake up, for we are no longer the country we think we are.

Permit me a quibble: I’ve been reading a lot of American history lately, and it has become painfully clear that we never were the country so many of us (me included!) thought we were.

From Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths, to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to Isabel Wilkerson’s searing Caste, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us,  these unadorned, un-falsified, meticulously documented accounts explain–as McGhee puts it–“why we can’t have nice things.”

Thanks to America’s long history of tribalism and “zero sum” thinking (if “those people” get X then that must mean I will lose X), we can’t even have the public goods that other countries take for granted, let alone a social infrastructure that supports and values all  citizens.

A full third of America wants to keep it that way. To them, that was the American “greatness” they wanted the former guy to restore.

The rest of us have our work cut out for us.


  1. Positives and negatives. Abundance and scarcity. Excellence and mediocrity. Hope and fear. As a nation, America has it all. One can choose which wolf to feed at our own gate.

  2. When were we last ranked #1; were we ever, in the eyes of other than ourselves, ranked #1? The wealth in this country has never been evenly or fairly distributed; built on the back of slaves and now by the sweat of minorities and low income workers, have we merely been “A legend in our own minds”?

    Defying the reality of the power of other nations by believing no other country would ever attack us on our own ground brought about 9/11. Had we paid more attention to the original bombing of the World Trade Center and sought out foreign terrorists, it could have been avoided. Ignoring Timothy McVeigh’s retaliation for Waco, TX, by killing 168 people in his Oklahoma City bombing and the mass shootings by domestic terrorists led us to January 6th insurrection headed by our own president and doesn’t bode well for our intelligence or common sense levels or governing.

    “Permit me a quibble: I’ve been reading a lot of American history lately, and it has become painfully clear that we never were the country so many of us (me included!) thought we were.”

    The dark chapters of history of this country speak to the realities of who we are and why; the only answer to “why” is the greed and avarice with all roads leading to “Follow The Money”!

    Yet I have no desire to live anywhere else!

  3. “A full third of America wants to keep it that way.”‘
    Then another third of America wants change but cannot agree on what change nor is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make that change or any change for that matter.
    And finally, there is the last third who don’t care one way or the other. “Don’t bother me. I’m watching the game here.”
    As I have posted before, “America is the richest poor country in the world”.

  4. Oh but if you’re like me and live abroad, we are considered traitors if we criticize anything you mention! The US needs to put their big boy pants on and take the criticism like a man. Americans cannot win when everything is so messed up and have two Governors that think the pandemic is history.

  5. I didn’t think I’d read a book as good as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste on the subject of race in the US but Heather McGee’s The Sum of Us is also stunningly good.

  6. I would add to your list Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” It is an eye-opener and helped me “see” the America I live in years ago.

  7. Yes, Dave K., “The Sum of US” is stunningly good. It’s also the primer for understanding that the Reagan/Regan years were the push down the slippery slope to our own demise. It wasn’t just the “southern strategy” , but the total embracing of Friedman’s cockeyed and totally racist “Supply-Side” economics B.S. You want bat-shit crazy, read about how Friedman combined with the CIA’s communist paranoia to destroy democracies in Chile and Bolivia. Read it on an empty stomach.

    Reagan was the dupe and the fool of whites only economics. No wonder he is sainted by Republicans. Now, those same Republicans are turned in their dog whistles to be replaced by the bullhorn of their long-held race-based power grabs. THESE are the reasons we are seemingly more divided than ever before. That screeching 1/3 of racist haters will never be quiet, will never stop hating and will never give up their primitive, backward stances on anything not white. It is indeed who and what we are.

    Ranking? Crap! We rank #1 in hypocrisy and social stupidity. Biden is spitting into the wind, the wind that has been blowing for 400 years on this continent.

  8. Having been born a skeptic and believing that American exceptionalism was horse manure, I welcome all of you to my “no rose colored glasses allowed” party. My guiding principle has always been question everything!

  9. “the former guy”…very good! I have taken to the practice of not speaking his name, and when I do accidentally I have to put a quarter in the swear jar…
    The first step in recovery is to realize that you have a problem, and unfortunately America is not yet at the first step, but hopefully this is a generational thing and will soon be able to recognize that we have a lot of collective work to do.

  10. Re Aging Girls comments – I’d suggest we put our Big Girl pants on and take criticism like a Woman. We are much better at it having had lifetimes of practice. And, I agree with Indygaffer re Howard Zinn’s look at our true history. This Zinn Project has free materials for junior and senior high classrooms based on his work. Good stuff!
    The best reason to continue living in this country is to try to help make it the country we were taught it is, but never was.

  11. As Sheila points out, our addiction to racism, fueled by the myth of “American Exceptionalism” keeps us poorer. Our access to better education, health care, opportunities for everyone, the “reason we can’t have nice things,” all start there. Exclusion kills.

  12. And someone please explain why, during all the “Make America Great Again”, the DEMS never used how “great” we are in their marketing? And now they are all about “Build Back Better” – better than what, “poor”? Get real….

  13. Sadly, we miss the point – in two directions

    Some discover that we are not and never have been the great #1 America of our dreams. Believing that we were made us complacent and deaf to those who pointed out our weaknesses.

    Others miss the point that it has been our aspiration that were #1. We spoke of the ideals, of the vision of what we wanted to be, and that vision, that aspiration was our greatness. By not understanding that this was our true greatness, we didn’t do the work that was needed to achieve that vision — or we quit on our way.

    In our founding documents, we never claimed that we were perfect, but that we were striving for a “more perfect union”. Back in the day (late ’60s), I remember my economics instructor talking about the diamond shaped economy. Due to taxation, unions, the GI Bill, public investment, and other circumstances, the bulk of the wealth in the nation was held by the middle class. There was no sense of complacency. The goal was to eliminate the poverty that was at the bottom while preserving the success of the middle class (also not to eradicate the rich). We were good, but we wanted a “more perfect” society (OK, that was Ann Arbor in the ’60s).

    But we walked away, threw up our hands, and/or drank the Reagan Kool-Aid. We crippled progressive taxation, unions, and the middle class. The rich, who had (to some extent) felt a sense of “noblesse oblige” and a connection to their local towns and cities, contributed to civic culture (yes, and sometimes after an early life of heartlessness and greed). Now they live a complete life of selfishness and greed. I remember reading about how Michael Dell complained about the lack of skilled workers, then complained that his school-supporting property taxes were too high.

    We need to remember that we are #28 in reality, as Sheila and Nicholas Kristof remind us, but #1 in aspiration.

    I will end with one of my favorite quotes that applies here.

    “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”

  14. Reagan never addressed the AIDS epidemic. As a result, thousands of people died. Trump never faced the COVID pandemic head on. 2nd verse, same as the first.

    This country is still struggling to overcome racism, sexism, and homophobia. Some progress has been made but we still have a long way to go. Communities of color are more likely to suffer from pollution and environmental damage. Some of those communites have very few trees!

    It’s obvious to me that our government does not understand how critically important it is to have a strong public health infrastructure. It does not even understand the need for better roads and bridges.

    I remain of the opinion that Newt Gingrich started the divisiveness in our country. Unless we can heal the political divide that prevents us from dealing with above mentioned challenges, our reputation internationally will continue to decline.

  15. I have three nephews who are MDs, and all warn of the dangers of self-diagnosis. I think that caveat a good one and I therefore appreciate the rankings of others outside our borders set forth in Professor Kennedy’s blog this morning as we move from medicine to civics.

    I have long thought of American exceptionalism as a mere cover for continuation of the status quo, as though there is nothing we can do about its direction or speed as the ship of state moves inexorably forward. Germany and the Nordic states give a lie to such a view. There is much we can do in our quest for the elusive common good, so why aren’t we doing it?

    I think the culprit is capitalism as now practiced and as intertwined with politics and often write that I still cling to the fleeting notion that capitalism can still work, but not as currently practiced. It is working FOR ALL in Germany and the Nordic states and can work here absent the terminal greed exhibited by present day capitalists, but so long as capitalists control our political apparatus and profit making is held in higher esteem than any other goal (see Big Oil – Abbott and Big Tourism-DeSantis), the common good will remain a mirage.

    So what to do? Backlash with socialism? No, the world’s experience with state socialism has not been good. Then what? Elect legislators who adopt policies that lead toward the American exceptionalism that we pretend to have, policies that first of all aim toward a fairer and more equitable distribution of the income and wealth of OUR economy (a la Denmark?) and go from there. (It is, after all, OUR economy and not that of mere contributors of private capital to its functioning, a task we could if necessary take on ourselves until such greedy privateers learned their lesson, i. e., that they are only one of such shareholders in an economy from which they could be excluded for a new model that considered something other than profit-making for its existence.)

    Expect calls of communism! if such a new model were to be instituted, but that is propaganda. It is capitalism with a conscience, like, are Germany and the Nordic states communist? Hardly. They are states whose success proves that capitalism and the common good can coexist to the benefit of all. Let’s try it.

  16. Have long thought that we are “exceptional,” exceptionally stupid. You are right to point out that we’ve never been the country the myth says we were. From M. Alexander’s book, to R. Rothstein’s, to E. Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of other Suns….,”to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” to my current read (“How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi), and more, one can learn that what we teach in schools is American mythology.
    Howard Zinn’s book, as referenced above escaped my mind, until I read IndyGaffer’s comment; excellent book.
    I have not read “The Sum of Us,” but have long pointed to St. Reagan as the previously most venal curse on American culture.
    I do not know which 2 governors AgingLgirl is referring to, but would put some money on my DeSantis, who may be working towards a nomination in ’24.
    Thank you, Robin, for bringing the Gingrich-thing into the conversation. Fox News still trots out this bag of vileness, every so often.

  17. The myth of “American Exceptionalism” was apparently self-created. Joseph Stalin coined the term in 1929 as a derisive description.

  18. This brings to mind Einstein’s famous quote, “We can’t solve the problem with the same level of consciousness which created it.”

    As Sheila’s post refers to our declining rankings across the board and the addition of even more idiots like Cruz, Abbott, and DeSantis, it doesn’t project hopefulness for this Hoosier journalist.

    Seeing that our free press ranking is 45th and we just refused to hold MbS accountable for ordering the murder and dismemberment of a US journalist while we charge another journalist with espionage for holding our war criminals accountable, I see a dramatic decline in democracy and freedom of expression. We can’t even make bribing public officials illegal. LOL

    If the Nazis get their wish, protesting in the streets against our oppressive state won’t be an option either.

  19. As an infantry combat Veteran of Vietnam (Draftee Type) I saw first hand the Phony American Exceptionalism. What I saw instead was brutal American Imperialism. “Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam”, by Martha Hess, is the best book concerning the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. She writes, “while public attention has focused on the American soldier as a victim of `misguided’ policy, there seems to be little concern or even curiosity about the people of that faraway land who were the object of our country’s apocalyptic wrath.”

    Two other books that woke me up were “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “A People’s History of the United States”.

    The propaganda of American Exceptionalism taught in schools and echoed in the Corporate Mc-Mega-Media was there to convince people we were #1. Those that pointed out the flaws were subject to various accusations: Communists, unpatriotic, trouble makers, rabble rousers, etc.

  20. The partisan Democrats were all flush with victory once it was settled Biden Won the election. Happy Days were Here Again.

    Biden almost immediately validated his commitment to the MIC with his Air Raid in Syria. Syria has been a punching bag for over a decade. Not hard to figure out why North Korea has Nukes and will never give them up.

    At the same time the report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi will be treated with the usual nod and wink to the Saudi’s. From NYT:

    President Biden has decided that the diplomatic cost of directly penalizing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is too high, according to senior administration officials, despite a detailed American intelligence finding that he directly approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist who was drugged and dismembered in October 2018.

    Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator, applauded Mr. Biden for “trying to thread the needle here.”
    “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross said.

    My Side Bar: In other words like the internal “American Justice System” if you are wealthy, well connected or both the chances of “real justice” is remote to non-existent.

    I did notice when Jamal Khashoggi, first went missing and then was presumed dead via Saudi State sanctioned murder, MSDNC and CNN were all in a lather about The Trumpet ignoring the whole thing.

    The details now point the finger at MBS however the outrage from MSDNC and CNN is lacking. These two propaganda outlets have now decided the “Nuanced” approach by Biden is the best course of action.

  21. I think that everyone agrees that things used to be better. I also think that is the garden of fascism.

    What we can’t all agree on is why. Some think things were better when whites were large and in charge and some credit Christianity. Some credit the Marlboro Man. Some believe that our problem is our refusal to adapt to the world that we contributed to changing and are still. Some credit our lack of diversity and inclusion and some blame the same. The rich blame the poor and the poor blame the wealthy.

    Everyone has a bogeyman and nobody has a solution, or is it that we all have different solutions.

  22. And one can only wonder where we stand in the percentage of citizens and legislators who oppose democracy. My professors of history during my freshman year disabused us of the notion of American exceptionalism, and instilled a belief that “America first” was a slogan for non-thinkers and would-be failures.

    While I find little in the above comments to disagree with, let’s not get too grim about it all. Human kind is a weak vessel for building Utopias, especially when we mostly agree that everyone deserves a voice. “Everyone” includes people who have been mistreated or deprived from birth. It invites the irrational and the valueless into conversations. It includes torturers and the depraved, the criminals and the sadists and the pornographers, those devoid of empathy, and those with mental conditions that preclude productive thinking. It counts as members many who derived little or no benefit from their educations, and countless spousal abusers and human traffickers and pimps. It is peopled by those who think no finer creature than themselves has ever lived, and countless thousands who see public service as an opportunity to exercise arbitrary power or to bilk the public treasury. It numbers among its members many who embrace anger and resentment as life styles, and other who see themselves a victims in every transaction. As we learned recently, it includes large numbers of those who see the acquisition of power as the goal of all their struggles. Finally, it is populated by those whose thinking and self-worth are provided by people they admire or by other outside sources.

    Let’s accept the reality that for the wiser, more rational among us, survival depends on our ability to produce and nourish enough MLK’s, FDR’s, Mandelas, Schweitzers, Faucis, Schiffs, Merkels, Einsteins, (John) Lewises, and others of their moral and intellectual ilk and leadership skills and work to live up to their standards. People who meet those criteria may be a minority and must therefore strive far harder than the creatures of darkness who would strip life of its worthwhileness. The fight is hard and ever changing, and no amount of social reform will end it. Maybe it is the very essence of life itself.

  23. Around a long time and knowledge of better days (responsive government, shot at the top, poor but didn’t know, my vote counted, US is #1, racism endemic but wouldn’t be caught dead once aware, good education on the cheap, etc.) now I arise each and every day wondering how this once mighty entity full of promise devolved into developing or even underdeveloped status. Not so much why but how did it happen.
    Sidebar: Chatting with a fellow ILC member and psychiatrist I asked the burning question, how do I inform the Trumpist mindset of its errors.
    His response, tell me and we’ll both know. Discouraging…

  24. Our myth of greatness, and the participation of the likes of Gingrich and St. Reagan in feeding it has come down, way “down,” to the likes of the Empty Orange and Ted Cruz. The latter fool was on stage at CPAC, doing his version of Hitlerite screaming about “Freedom!” An excerpt from Kendi’s “How To Be An antiracist” seems called for in this context:
    Cruz’ screams for “Freedom!” are screams for the “freedom” to “…exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments ; the freedom to value quarterly profits over climate change; the freedom to undermine small businesses and cushion corporations; the freedom from competition; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to co modify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle-income, and make rich people richer.”

  25. I recommend the book, American Rule by Sexton. Published in 2020, Sexton, a Southerner takes a deep dive into American poilitics and equity for all – or lack thereof – from the signing of the Constitution to the present.

  26. Interesting. I have often wondered if Americans really believe in the self-proclaimed statement in American Exceptionalism. Gen X here, age 52 and I can safely say my age group finds this statement obnoxious and not our experience. The year I graduated from high school in 1987 the common saying was ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die.’. Nothing aspirational in that statement but a recognition of the reality.

    Exceptionalism of America has never been in my or my peers vocabulary. We grew up hearing about Greed is good and watching our infrastructure crumble, our public schools lagging further and further behind from essentially zero investment. Our wages have been stagnet for decades to the point it takes both parents (if you are lucky to have intact parents) working to cover the bills. College has become almost unattainable due to sky rocketing costs. My school loans are at 8% and today I learned by Steve Ratnor on Morning Joe are minimum wage is below Slovenia. Slovenia!!

    What is the definition of being middle-class? I have a feeling the middle class nowadays is the working class if yesteryear.

    My husband had 6 jobs in 16 yrs because companies went under it left Indiana. Stability in our careers and jobs have never been anything most of my peers have experienced.

    Some say we are overly cynical but ones cynicism is another’s reality.

Comments are closed.