Back before Trump and COVID, I used to hear and see people lecturing others that America truly was The Greatest Nation in the World, telling tales of grateful immigrants now and in the past, sharing how they feel when they see The Flag, and oh yes, we have Barack Obama as president!
This was, of course, rather offensive to non-white Americans, who saw what we were even before we elected Trump. If you spent a little time in an online Native American or Black community in 2016, for example, you did not see a whole lot of “the America I know would NEVER elect Trump” because they knew, that yeah, America could elect Trump. So we did. But this near-religious fervor in believing in Amerian exceptionalism was also ignoring some other clear signs of where our nation was. Namely, in many cases, our global rankings compared to other, similar nations were not great.
“We’re Number One, Right?!” Well…
In December 2014, Bloomberg reported that the United States ranked 44th in health care efficiency. According to the 2014 Global Peace Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace, we ranked 101st. In World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2013, we ranked 23rd in gender equality. In 2009, we tied for 151th in child mortality with Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates, and 34th in maternal survival (FYI, this last thing has become much worse).
There are certainly some things we are doing decent enough at. We have dropped some from several years ago but are still in the top 10 overall as per this ranking. But none of this really points to “exceptional.”
That leads me to this Tweet by MSNBC Host and Perpetually Exasperated Human Chris Hayes yesterday:
A big part of American exceptionalism is just generally tolerating a lot more death and illness and violence and shorter life-spans than other peer countries.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) February 9, 2022
Should Have Known This Was Coming
What Hayes is talking about there is one of the things that had me unnerved heading into the pandemic. There is no doubt we have one of the best research infrastructures in the world, as it draws a lot of brilliant minds from elsewhere to America to work in places like Penn State (as a science writer there, I see a lot of that brilliance every day). We also spend, by far, the most per capita on health care than any other nation in the world. However, we have this as a result:
American life expectancy has decreased since 2014, even before the pandemic. While other developed nations have kept rising, we are unique in our level of backsliding.
COVID, of course, only made that worse, dropping it a whopping 1.8 years, the largest post-World-War-II decline in American life expectancy. We stand out, we are exceptional, in this case.
We are also exceptional in how likely you are to die from COVID compared to other countries. Despite this, the drive to make it all normal is winning, as even Democratic governors are lifting mask mandates. Understandable, as the pressure from the Worst Voices on the Internet (seriously, Nate Silver went from data guru to kinda-sorta-sociopathic about COVID) to let our normal flags fly and it’s only the stinkin’ scaredy-cat hippies that are worried has really gone overboard. You’d think they’d have learned from this – from last May! Plus, there’s a midterm election to try to win, because the other party is so out-of-control every election is an existential dread moment for the nation (at least the sane ones and the ones actually paying attention). And truly, people are pandemic weary.
These Democrat leaders also see other countries dropping mask mandates, but those nations aren’t exceptional as ours is as far as the number of people refusing the vaccine for insane reasons. So, dropping mask mandates is probably not going to be as successful here as it is in other countries.
A Paradise for a Virus
Hayes’ Tweet also speaks to how it makes perfect sense that the virus is thriving in early 21st-Century America. A lot of what is wrong with America are choices we make as a society, and that includes some instances where we just shrug at mass death. Despite estimates of 100,000 to 200,000 Americans dying from air pollution annually, articles like the one I am linking to are often written right after a new study and get limited play in the media and next to no political action. Air pollution especially harms low-income people and people of color. Yet, there is not a lot of evident concern, as we just ignore it as a society. As you can see, we have some experience simply turning our back on people dying.
Along with this, there is of course the level of misinformation that spreads through outlets like The Joe Rogan Podcast and FoxNews, not to mention social media. Among the American right, this has led to a mistrust of science and this has spread globally. Despite our infecting these other nations with our anti-science germs, we are still doing much worse with vaccines when compared to other wealthy nations.
We are rich, have lots of talent, lots of resources, and yet, as Michael Lewis wrote in his COVID book “The Premonition,” we are like a college football team that is highly ranked in the preseason and falls apart when it’s game time.
Then the game was played. The preseason rankings no longer mattered. Neither, really, did the excuses and blame-casting and rationalizations. As the legendary football coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” At last count the United States, with a bit more than 4 percent of the world’s population, had a bit more than 20 percent of its COVID-19 deaths. In February 2021, The Lancet published a long critique of the U.S. pandemic performance. By then 450,000 Americans had died. The Lancet pointed out that if the COVID death rate in the United States had simply tracked the average of the other six G7 nations, 180,000 of those people would still be alive. “Missing Americans,” they called them. But why stop there? Before the pandemic, a panel of public-health experts had judged the United States to be more prepared for a pandemic than other G7 nations. In a war with a virus, we were not expected merely to fare as well as other rich countries. We were expected to win.
The Things We Tell Ourselves, And What It Costs
The American mythology of an exceptional, diverse, just, and good nation is a helluva drug. We just don’t like it to be questioned, as we are seeing with the absurd Critical Race Theory battle and the current book bannings and threats to teachers. Yet, in believing it, we miss a lot of chances to be what we think we are.
Lewis and others talk about these huge opportunities to fix our mess of a public health system, a system so weakened by years of budget cuts (budget hawkery’s role in this cannot be ignored) that it was pretty easy for Pale Orange Nightmare Donald Trump to kick it in. There is a TON to be learned about better messaging to the public, as there were definitely mistakes made with communication. We could do something about being better prepared for another pandemic, whenever we’re truly “over COVID.” This would include making sure we have enough supplies for our medical staff and first responders so we do not have to tell people masks are not necessary in the early stage of the crisis because we are afraid of hoarders keeping essential pandemic workers from access to masks.
Unfortunately, I worry we are going to just not want to hear it, because Americans love to “move on” from something without actually solving it, and facing up to our mistakes is a threat to the myth. Not acknowledging our shortfalls and who we really are as a people just have not worked very well, from dismissing the idea that Trump could be elected to our terrible pandemic response.
A Happy Ending?
Okay, this all has been a bit depressing so I will end on a positive note. There are a lot of positive things about America, there really are. I am not saying all this to be a big ol’ meanie-weenie who just wants to make Americans feel bad about their country. Honestly, some Americans react to any criticism in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from a five-year-old reacting to being told there is no Santa. But in many cases, these criticisms come from FAITH in America, not dismissal.
If just are more honest, even a little, we have an opportunity. We have a lot to overcome, such as the misinformation, the unsavory mix of magical thinking and profound selfishness so many Americans carry, the general apathy, and yes, a two-year ordeal that has hit Americans in many different and traumatic ways. We have to, however, acknowledge what went on, what is going on, and how we can fix that. And see it as another part of a much larger problem staring us in the face – there are things that we are just not doing very well, things that we CAN do well. This could spread to addressing our other problems around health, inequality, income disparity, and more.
Like an alcoholic acknowledging they have a problem, it is the first step to improvement. We have the resources to turn our myths into reality, to be actually, truly exceptional. Those of us who raise these criticisms are not interested in leaving America (not to mention “if you don’t like it leave” is such a disingenuous, lazy cop-out). We have not given up on “The American Promise.”
But we have to choose to take real steps to get there.
The last word goes to that ol’ optimist, Howard Jones.