America Exceptionalism

Maybe, Trump’s slogan really should be - Make America Even More Like Russia.

President Trump questioned the concept of American exceptionalism, saying he doesn’t really believe in it. Well, he’s wrong. Even a cursory glance shows how exceptional America is as a nation. Compared to other wealthy democracies, we do exceptionally badly on many important measures of health, public safety and education.

There’s one major country, however, that we clearly still do better than - Russia - a kleptocracy and non-democracy. Because Russia’s an autocracy, its people have no ability to change anything, and it clamps down heavily on anyone demanding accountability from their government. Maybe that’s why Trump (and some in the GOP) like Russia so much, despite its pathetic performance - no pesky democracy to deal with. If this sounds harsh, let’s review some facts that demand accountability.

America’s homicide rate is much higher than for other wealthy democracies (such as Canada, England, Germany, France, Italy, Australia and Japan), at almost 5 times these seven countries’ average, and a staggering 15 times the rate of the least violent country in the group. Even more embarrassing, in world rankings, our overall murder rate ranked 126th (where 1 represents the lowest murder rate). Our murder rate places us just behind Kazakhstan and just ahead of Kyrgyzstan (each a former Soviet “republic”) – quite an exceptional achievement for our wealthy democracy! Significantly, our murder rate isn’t caused by immigrants or racial tensions. If you’re murdered in America, your assailant will likely be someone who is the same race as you and someone you know. Putin fans take note: Russia’s murder rate is more than twice that of the U.S. - nothing to admire about that.

Our politicians boast that we’re the land of the free, but in fact, we have the largest prison population per capita (by far), when compared with the democracies named above. Our incarceration rate is more than 6 times these nations’ average. Our ranking within the broader global community is even more disgraceful. Globally, the U.S. has the second highest incarceration rate per capita, just behind the Seychelles (which has the highest incarceration rate) and just ahead of El Salvador. And, you guessed it - in terms of our incarceration rate, we look a lot more like Russia than a wealthy democracy.

Regarding health, when compared with these seven wealthy democracies, America has the lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest infant mortality rate (globally, we rank between Serbia and Bosnia) and the highest maternal death rate (globally, we rank between Hungary and Iran). Our poor performance with health care isn’t because of skimping on health expenditures. We Americans spend more on health care (17.9% of our GDP) than any other nation in the world (the average health care spending of the seven democracies mentioned previously was only 10.2% of GDP). Not surprisingly, the U.S. health care system is considered one of the world’s least efficient. On the Bloomberg Health-Care Efficiency Index, the U.S. ranked 50th out of 55 countries (Russia ranked 55th). Now, before you blame government intervention in health care for our nation’s expensive, but poor performance - keep in mind, we’re one of the only developed countries without government-mandated universal health care.

In Putin’s Russia, which Trump admires so much, the people have even lower life expectancy (about 71 years, compared to about 80 years in America), higher infant mortality, and higher maternal death rates than in the U.S. So the next time some politician tells you what a difficult problem health care presents, keep in mind we could copy pretty much what any other major country (except Russia) does, and have a lower cost health care system - with likely the same or even better results than we currently have.

America prides itself on its wealth and material accomplishments, but in a survey of developed countries, we had the second highest number of children growing up in poverty - only Romania was worse. Maybe that’s why we’re also failing at educating the next generation. Based on standardized international tests, our children have the worst math scores when compared to children of the seven affluent democracies mentioned above.

Look, America isn’t falling apart completely. Our high tech industries (such as Apple, Facebook and Google) are the envy of the world. However, on a lot of metrics that matter to ordinary citizens (but not to our elites who are insulated from these issues), we are doing badly.

Perhaps the most exceptional characteristic of today’s America is our lack of debate about how badly we’re doing. If other democracies were failing this badly on key metrics, it would trigger major political debates. By contrast, in America, our GOP-controlled Congress recently tried to pass a major restructuring of our health care system, without any meaningful public committee meetings or debates. All the main decisions were made by the GOP party leaders behind closed doors – beginning to sound like Russia? Trump and some in the GOP have been pretty clear about their admiration for Russia, and even worse, seem to be adopting Putin’s authoritarian methods. Debates and committee hearings are for democracies that care about their citizens’ input. But in today’s Washington, D.C., accountability and transparency are being shoved aside as annoying impediments on America’s path towards becoming an authoritarian kleptocracy.

Maybe, Trump’s slogan really should be - Make America Even More Like Russia.

Steven Strauss, is a visiting professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Steven_Strauss

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