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.