Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America. – George W. Bush
I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. – Barack Obama
In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. – James Hillman
And yet, despite such emotionally laden issues, both civic participation and civic awareness continue to decline. Americans vote in lower percentages than in any other democracy. One hundred million eligible voters stayed home in November of 2016. Of those ineligible to vote, 4.7 million – a third of them Black men – are disenfranchised by felony convictions.
America has slipped from first to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 49th in literacy. Surveys regularly indicate just how “dumbed-down” we are: 60%, for example, know that Superman came from the planet Krypton, while 37% know that Mercury is the planet closest to our sun. Similarly, 74% know all three Stooges, while 42% can name the three branches of the U.S. government.
Millions of citizens completely misunderstand common political labels. Nearly 50% believe or are not sure that conservatives support gun control and affirmative action, and 19% think that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Seventy percent cannot name their senators or their congressman. In 2000, twelve million Americans thought that George W. Bush was a liberal.
Studies indicate that social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has decreased significantly. But in a 2003 poll on the Bush tax plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it. The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. Similarly, 50% think that most families have to pay the estate tax (only two percent do), and two-thirds think that they will one day have to pay it. Twenty years later, those numbers have certainly come down. But in America disillusionment can just as easily turn someone’s politics to right as to the left, as the 2016 election showed.
Our ignorance is both the cause and the result of our unique voting system. The Founding Fathers devised both our two-tiered legislature and the Electoral College fearing (pick one) “mob rule” or “genuine democracy.” The Electoral College prevents millions from having their voice heard in national elections. Three times, a presidential candidate has won 500,000 more votes than his opponent, only to lose the election. Senators from the 26 smallest states (representing 18% of the population) hold a majority in the Senate. Still, though most citizens are ignorant of these statistics, they are not stupid: majorities regularly favor dismantling the Electoral College.
But the system, designed to limit democratic participation, has succeeded. As fewer people believe that their votes matter, they lose interest in keeping track of events, and ignorance becomes reality. The contradiction becomes monumental when we periodically bond together to “bring democracy” elsewhere.
A vicious cycle develops: low turnout by the poor results in government that is far more conservative than the population; and politicians reaffirm their apathy by courting the middle class. Indeed, in countless subtle ways the process of voting in America is designed to restrict participation: voting on one work-day instead of weekends; massive voter suppression; computer fraud; and hostile right-wing operatives.
“Americanism” is a mix of contradictory images: competitive individualism balanced by paranoid conformism; an ideology of equality with a subtext of racial exclusion; and official church-state separation negated by the legislation of morality. These features come together in one truly exceptional symbol: the cult of the flag, which we literally worship. We have Flag Day, Flag etiquette and a unique national anthem dedicated to it that we sing, curiously, at sporting events. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute it daily.
But worship? Consider the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing.” Indeed, religious minorities have refused to salute it specifically because they consider such action to be blasphemous. But dread of the Other and re-invigorated, manipulated support for the military creates religious fervor – and fearful politicians. All fifty state legislatures have urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make defacing the flag a crime.
The myths of freedom and opportunity – two-thirds of us believe that success is within our control – meet the myth of the Puritan to form another exceptional characteristic. Since Puritans still perceive both morality and worldly success as evidence of their elect status, we are a nation in which the poor have no one to blame (and often to turn to) but themselves. By more than six to one, we believe that people who fail in life do so because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.
We are exceptional among industrialized countries in failing to provide for pregnant and newly parenting workers; only two other countries do not mandate maternity leave. Reforms such as unemployment insurance came into effect in the U.S. thirty to fifty years after most European countries had introduced them. They remain highly popular there; but as low-income constituencies shrink, both Republicans and Democrats have felt free to erode them.
(Let me point out, by the way, that I compiled most of these statistics for my book prior to the economic meltdown of 2008 and long before the Depression of 2020.)
The results: Nearly four million children live with parents who had no jobs in the previous year. The U.S. is 22nd in child poverty, 24th in life expectancy, 24th in income inequality, 26th in infant mortality, 37th in overall health performance and 54th in fairness of health care. Even so, America’s health care system is the costliest in the world. We spend over $5,200 per person on health care, more than double what 29 other industrialized nations spent. This equals 15% of our GDP, compared to Britain’s 7.7%. We account for 50% of the world’s drug budget, and we were 28th in environmental performance, long before Trumpus (Trump = Us) trashed most of the nation’s regulatory agencies.
Americans naively consider themselves to be quite generous in helping poor nations. In fact, our Puritan judgment encompasses the whole world. We are 22nd in proportion of GDP devoted to foreign aid, and over half of it goes to client states in the Middle East. Indeed, nearly 80 % of USAID contracts and grants go directly to American companies. Nearly 70% of Europeans want their governments to give more aid to poor nations, while nearly half of Americans claim that rich nations are already giving too much.
By choice (the Puritan’s addiction of workaholism) or by necessity (the “McJobbing” of the economy), we work unceasingly. In 2003, Americans worked 200 to 350 hours – five to nine weeks – longer per year than Europeans. Indeed, this was four weeks longer than they themselves had in 1969. Vacations average two weeks; in Europe they average five to six weeks. We spend 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. Europeans, who consistently choose more leisure over bigger paychecks, claim that they work to live, while Americans seem to live to work.
Even if we factor out economic issues, the Puritan residue remains. Just below the skin of consumer culture we judge ourselves by how hard we work, and we relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.
One reason we work so hard is to afford the national status symbol, the car. We own far more than other countries, both in total and per capita. The average household now has more cars than drivers. Consequently, America leads the world in greenhouse emissions, both absolutely – a quarter of the world’s total – and per capita. We spend ten hours per week driving. We park those cars next to houses that average more than twice the size of European homes.
But the shadow of radical individualism reveals itself in epidemics of loneliness and alienation. According to Jill Lepore, neuroscientists identify loneliness as “a state of hypervigilance” embedded in our nervous system, inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. In the past seventy years the percentage of American households consisting of only one person has risen from 9% to 25%. She concludes:
Living alone works best in nations with strong social supports. It works worst in places like the United States. It is best to have not only an Internet but a social safety net.
Loneliness makes us sick, and alienation – combined with unrealistic expectations of success –makes us exceptionally willing to shoot up a schoolyard or other public space. For an excellent Depth Psychological perspective on the mass shootings of the past twenty years, read Glen Slater’s article A Mythology of Bullets.
Despite the talk show rhetoric, Americans have always been taxed at far lower rates than the rest of the developed world. Even before the Reagan years, taxes amounted to 31% of GDP, while most European countries were well over 40%. There are at least two primary results of these disparities. We provide far fewer social services, and economic inequality is far higher than in any other developed nation.
By 2000 one percent of us owned forty percent of the wealth. By 2020, the top one percent owned nearly as much as the entire middle class. We have entered a “new Gilded Age” of unregulated capitalism and conspicuous consumption, as I write in We Like to Watch: Being There With Trump. In the first three months of the Coronavirus pandemic, American billionaires saw their wealth increase by half a trillion dollars.
And that wealth is age-based. Excluding tiny enclaves like Switzerland, white American adults over age forty are the richest in the world. Even so, America has the highest rate of children living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines; this is the result of fewer public resources spent on children than in any industrialized nation.
Youths are by far our poorest age group. Mortality rates among children are also the highest, approaching Third World conditions. Yet even the wealth figures for the elderly reveal surprises. Most – some 35 million – are very well off. But twelve percent of them – again, the highest in the industrialized world – remain in poverty even after Social Security and Medicare.
With a shrinking economy, miniscule taxes on corporations, Puritan condemnation of poverty and the maintenance of empire, it is little wonder that so few resources remain for the poor. The U.S. spends more money on armaments than the rest of the world combined.
Even so, confidence in American institutions – government, religion and education – had been dropping every year since the early 1970’s – at least until 9/11/01. Here we return to mythic questions. A large and occasionally threatening population of Others is absolutely crucial to the perpetuation of the myth of American innocence. As long as the internal Black Other threatens to take one’s job (or one’s daughter), as long as one believes in the necessity of constantly striving in unsatisfying work to attain the symbols that serve as substitutes for a genuine erotic life, one will work unceasingly. In June of 2020, we can legitimately ask, Do Black Lives Really Matter?