Like most Americans, I have always considered the United States an exceptional country. We possess a political system built on checks and balances, an ideal of giving voice to ordinary people across a diverse land, and a Constitution that favors finding common ground among them. Our economy, at its best, offers opportunity, rewards innovation, and makes it possible for people from humble circumstances to succeed and thrive. Our civic spirit, despite hiccups and political conflict, has over the long haul pointed us toward tolerance, broadening civil rights, and encouraging participation from the neighborhood to Capitol Hill.
Recently, there has been a spate of public musing about “the end of American exceptionalism.” This is not new: conservatives have been lamenting our “decline” for years, while there are significant portions of the population for whom the promise of America never quite became real. But the coronavirus has laid bare a country fumbling for a response; a federal government that, despite pockets of brilliance, has failed overall to protect and offer guidance to Americans; a health care system that has been forced to scramble for the most basic supplies; and an economic downturn that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on the lives of middle-class and wage-earning Americans.
Yet even before this crisis, there was reason to question whether the US truly is exceptional. This is worth spending some time on, because in the coming months of this election year you’ll no doubt hear grandiose claims about the US’s virtues. They demand an honest accounting of where we excel and where we fall short.
Let’s take a quick tour. In education, for instance, the OECD ranked the US as sixth most-educated in 2018; Canada came first. We do even worse on student test scores for reading, math, and science, where the US in 2018 ranked 36th in math and 17th in reading. There was a time when our infrastructure was the envy of the world. Now it’s Singapore, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong; we’re not even in the top ten. In health care, World Population Review ranks us 37th. On a broad ranking of quality of life—that is, which countries offer the best chances for a healthy, safe, and prosperous life ahead—you’d want to be in Denmark, Switzerland, or Finland; on the Bloomberg “Healthiest Country” index, the US didn’t make the top 20. In fact, in a separate look at life expectancy in the 36 OECD countries, we rank 29th.