Tom Huckin: Our ‘exceptionalism’ gets in the way of progress

Just claiming that the U.S. is ‘Number One’ doesn’t make it so.

We are all caught up in a world that seems scarier by the day. Our nation is going through difficult times. Climate change, inflation, pandemics, crime, poverty, homelessness – the list goes on and on.

Utah has not been spared, most notably regarding homelessness in Salt Lake City, inflation, and the desiccation of Lake Powell and the Great Salt Lake. The problems seem insurmountable.

In the past we would deal with such issues by strong government action. That has become problematic, due to the culture war being waged between the two parties and their followers.

We Americans console ourselves by thinking that no matter how bad things are here, they’re worse elsewhere. We proclaim that “We’re Number One!” We boast about being a “light unto nations,” about our “exceptionalism.” Such laudatory self-regard is a long American tradition going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (1835), Horace Greeley and other 19th century observers.

And, in certain areas we are Number One. For example, we have the world’s best military, the best higher education system, the most powerful economy.

But, in many other areas we do not do well compared to the 38 fully-developed OECD countries we count ourselves among. In fact, in many important categories we lag well behind those countries. For example:

We have more mass shootings than any other OECD country, and more gun suicides than all other nations but Brazil. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Although we’re the richest nation on earth, our wealth is concentrated in the upper tax brackets, creating more Income inequality than in any other OECD country.

Despite having some of the best medical schools in the world and countless supermarkets offering nutritious food, the U.S. has more obesity than any other developed country.

One international survey combines measures of health, equality, crime, freedom and life satisfaction into a single measure called “social capital.” On that score, the U.S. comes out 111th in the world, flanked by Nicaragua, Ghana and other Third World countries.

In all these categories we lag behind all other developed countries. Confronted with such facts, many Americans might say, “OK, but we have more freedom!”

Do we? Do we really have more freedom? Not according to U.S.-based Freedom House, which tracks these things. We may brag about being “the land of the free,” but compared to all other developed countries we’re dead last in personal freedom (political rights & civil liberties). Indeed, we rank only 58th in the world.

If the United States lags so far behind so many countries, why don’t we study these other countries and learn from them?

That’s what Taiwan did in the early 1990s. Its health care system was a mess, with costly, substandard service to its 23 million citizens. So the president decided to do something about it. He commissioned a group of Taiwanese health experts to study what other countries did and use those findings to create a better system for Taiwan. The result? Taiwan’s health care system now ranks among the top 20 in the world, with one survey ranking it second-best of all!

So why don’t we do the same – learn from other countries? I attribute it to several factors. First, there’s our nation’s sense of superiority, a sentiment grounded in the fact that the USA is arguably the greatest country in the world, a centuries-old beacon of hope for refugees from everywhere on earth. Unfortunately, this has given us a certain arrogance that I referred to above, a sense that we’re so “exceptional” that there’s nothing to be learned from other, “lesser” countries.

Second, there is the average American’s ignorance of other countries. Although our geographic isolation has spared us from the multiple invasions and wars suffered by most other countries, it has also deprived most of our citizens from experiencing life in other countries and their systems, lifestyles and values.

Finally, there is a general American predilection for individualism at the expense of communalism. I attribute this mainly to the massive amount of consumerist propaganda our citizens are exposed to every day in the form of advertisements on all our public media.

Such propaganda is always directed at the individual viewer/consumer, thereby cultivating self-interest instead of the altruism that holds communities together. Sadly, this is one more category where the United States leads the world – the overall amount of money and the percentage of GDP spent on advertising.

Tom Huckin

Tom Huckin, now an emeritus professor, taught propaganda analysis, expository writing, and other subjects at the University of Utah.