American Exceptionalism

Rick Perry links the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s to the struggle of the Republican Party to absolve the wealthiest Americans from paying a fair share of their debt to their country. He also thinks it's legitimate to secede from the USA. To the Perry version of American exceptionalism, add some others: Sarah Palin finds us exceptional because she can have her guns; Michelle Bachmann seems to define American exceptionalism as our ability to achieve just about anything we set our sights on, no matter how unlikely, as long as our oversized, overregulating government only gets out of the way.

For Mitt Romney, American exceptionalism seems to turn on the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and make a ton of money, even if we're selling off bits and pieces of once-healthy companies. For TV host Chris Matthews, (I'm paraphrasing) it's exemplified by Obama being born of mixed race and yet making it to the presidency. Chris says this couldn't happen in any other country in the world. “You can't go to China or Japan and become Chinese or Japanese. Obama came to the US and became an American and is now in the White House. (Chris leaves out the minor truth that Obama didn't have to become American – he already was, having been born in Hawaii.)

Virtually since the beginning of our Republic, we have been spinning a variety of narratives to reassure ourselves that we are the greatest nation ever invented and that no other comes even close. That, presumably, is one of the reasons we seem to have this irresistible urge to teach the rest of the world how to be exceptional, too.

But one of the wisest men I know is injecting a dose of reality into the patriotic mishmash being cooked up by those seeking to get themselves elected to something.

That man is Doug Speth, or more formally, James Gustave Speth. A Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Yale Law School, after which he became a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Then, in the White House, as a member and subsequently for two years as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, he served in the executive office of the president. Later, he was professor of law at Georgetown, teaching environmental and constitutional law.

In 1982, he founded the World Resources Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental think tank, serving as its president until January 1993. He was a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, heading the group that examined the US's role in natural resources, energy and the environment.

Still later, he served as administrator of the United Nations Development Program; dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He retired from Yale in 2009 to assume a professorship at Vermont Law School.

Now, why I am going to such lengths to introduce you to some of the details of this outstanding career? Because those folks who believe in American exceptionalism – or think they're simply good for political aspirations – are wont to blame the messenger who brings actual proof that Americans may once have been exceptional, but today that achievement is crumbling and our favorites narratives with it.

Professor Speth has produced an index that should embarrass the exceptionalists by shining a bit of light on those areas where we're not so exceptional. For example, among the 20 major advanced countries America now has:

  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
  • the lowest number of paid holiday, annual and maternity leaves;
  • the lowest score on the United Nations' index of “material well-being of children”;
  • the worst score on the United Nations' gender inequality index;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of GDP;
  • the highest infant mortality rate; prevalence of mental health problems; obesity rate; portion of people going without health care due to cost; low-birth-weight children per capita (except for Japan); consumption of antidepressants per capita;
  • the shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
  • the highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
  • the lowest score on the World Economic Forum's environmental performance index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark);
  • the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
  • the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
  • the highest military spending as a portion of GDP; the largest international arms sales;
  • the most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain and Portugal);
  • the lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far from the top in both science and reading);
  • the highest high school dropout rate (except for Spain);
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • and the largest prison population per capita.

Now, this is a pretty sorry score sheet for our country – which used to excel in many of these categories.

The reasons for our fall from positive exceptionalism are far too lengthy to explore here, but some of the major factors, in no particular order, are inadequate education; globalization; the voracious greed and dishonesty of banks, mortgage brokers, government institutions and rating agencies, their actions creating a bubble which they knew was as unsustainable as were the insurance guarantees they issued bogus.

Then, there's the US Tax Code, which encourages foreign investment and demands local, not American, labor; a health care system that provides first-rate health to the very wealthy or the very old – but not to the poor, who have no health insurance; unemployment and underemployment, partly because of the Great Recession, but starting long before that catastrophe as a result of the increase in worker productivity caused by substituting machines for humans in the workplace; and the consequent widening income disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

But the picture is not all hopeless. Speth says, “It took a generation or more for most of these challenges to mature and it will take a generation or more to climb out of the depths into which we have let things slide. More realistically, given that the US government today is nowhere near ready to launch such efforts, it will take longer.”

He says, “If this analysis is correct, the devastating conclusion is that most of America's problems will get worse or, at best, will continue to fester more or less as they currently are for the foreseeable future. That is a difficult
conclusion to have to face. But face it we must. Of course, we have to fight to correct these problems with all the strength progressive communities can muster, but we must also prepare and pursue another path forward.”

In short, he says, “America must complement ongoing efforts at reform and working within the system with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change leading to a new political economy – a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet at home and around the world. The current system is simply not delivering economically, socially, environmentally, or politically. We need a new one. This type of systemic change will require a great struggle and it will not come quickly. The truth is we are still in the design stage of building a new operating system.”

He adds: “That system won't be socialism, by the way and it won't be today's American capitalism either.”

The possibility of system change suggests there can be a very bright light at the end of this gloomy tunnel. America is in the midst of a period of decline and it hasn't hit bottom yet. The imperatives its citizens face are therefore fourfold:

  1. to slow and then halt the descent, minimizing human suffering and planetary damage along the way;
  2. to prevent a collapse, the emergence of a fortress world, or any of the dark scenarios that have been plotted for us in science fiction and, increasingly, in serious analysis;
  3. to minimize the time at the bottom and to start the climb upward, building a new operating system; and
  4. to complete, inhabit and flourish in the diversity of alternative social arrangements, each far superior to what we will have left behind.

“There is hope especially in three things. The decline now occurring will progressively delegitimize the current order. Who wants an operating system that is capable of generating and perpetuating such suffering and destruction? The one good thing about the decline of today's political economy is that it opens the door to something much better. Second, people will eventually rise up, raise a loud shout and demand major changes. That is already happening with some people in some places. Eventually, the chorus will grow to become a national and global movement for transformation. And third, Americans are already busy with numerous, mostly local initiatives that point the way to the future.”

“Amid ongoing decline, Americans must now summon the hope and courage to dream up something new and better and to fight for it. It has been said that the genius of America is to turn crisis into opportunity. Let us now dream a new America, the country we want for our grandchildren.”

That's a Herculean order. And the question is: Will our political leaders find the smarts and the courage and the humility to become truly exceptional Americans?