By Ryan Newberry
“We live in the greatest nation on earth,” according to Barack Obama. But that’s not all — Marco Rubio declared the United States “the greatest society in all of human history.” Ronald Reagan took a more poetic stand: “She’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom.” And, of course, you know these words by heart: “America! America! God shed His grace on thee.”
American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. is special and superior — is woven into our country’s DNA. It dates back to some of our earliest colonists, and resonates in President Trump’s reelection campaign slogan.
But the coronavirus pandemic has exposed American exceptionalism as magical thinking that poisons our society and democracy. We flatter ourselves with empty rhetoric about a shining city on a hill (rhetoric that was only ever true for white Americans), but we’ve collectively stopped trying to live up to that promise. We’ve set ourselves so far back that we now lag behind countries like Saudi Arabia in controlling the toll of Covid-19.
As Americans seek to end this pandemic (from our living rooms), we should let American exceptionalism end with it, replacing it with a shared commitment to rediscovering and nurturing America’s — and by extension, every American’s — potential for greatness.
Our blind belief in our own ascendancy has made us extremely sensitive to criticism. We live in echo chambers where everything we observe reinforces our beliefs, and where challenges feel like attacks. We even tell fellow Americans who point out room for improvement to get the hell out.
Conspiracy theories thrive in this egotistical environment; bad things don’t just happen to Americans, we tell ourselves — they’re plots against us. Today, our head of state is selling the idea that, despite soaring death counts around the world, China unleashed coronavirus as a malicious attack on the U.S. That position evolved from early claims that coronavirus was simply a politicized hoax — claims that delayed crucial, life-saving steps to limit the virus’ spread.
What’s more, our aversion to honest self-reflection has led to an aversion to self-improvement. We’ve lost the competitive drive that helped us win World War II, fueled the space race and got us through the Cold War unscathed. Today, we take our greatness for granted: We don’t concern ourselves with such things as education, healthcare or social and economic equality — we cut funding or change the subject, expecting the “free market” or “rugged American individualism” to pick up the slack.
Consequently, Scandinavia has usurped us as the true home of the American dream, and our health outcomes and average life expectancy have fallen so far that we can no longer rightly call ourselves the leaders of the free world (though we still do). Instead of striving to be better, we fight for our right to consume unhealthy, bordering on toxic foods, refuse to invest sufficiently in our healthcare system, and reject efforts to make care accessible to everyone who needs it.
Our arrogant belief that our individual and societal ills will magically resolve themselves has left us particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. We have officials who focus more on re-election than the welfare of their constituents, spiritual leaders who believe they’re infallible, and spring breakers who party as the rest of the world grinds to a standstill. Not to mention the disproportionately high prevalence of risk factors like heart disease, diabetes and other conditions associated with poor self-care.
Even when we do take action, our unearned self-confidence causes us to not only ignore experts but threaten them. We opt for quick, shiny fixes that feel right, even if they ultimately make things worse. Politicians from Trump to the lieutenant governor of Texas have promoted the false choice between sheltering in place or “saving” the economy by working through the pandemic, despite objections from healthcare experts and even economists.
America is in an era of bounded rationality, making little effort to explore our options for solving problems. That makes us susceptible to leaders who stroke our egos and promise miracles, and has led us to a dangerous conviction that our democracy will take care of itself. That’s why voter turnout is pathetic; why horrifically unqualified candidates thrive; why corporate interests dominate politics; why officials roll back voting rights without consequences; and why there’s corruption from city councils all the way to the White House.
Yet, despite all this, America is still capable of great things. Though we barely rank among the top 15 countries when it comes to individual freedom, we are far from a lost cause. We have the potential to overcome pandemics and accomplish exceptional things on the national and international stages, thanks to our wealth of resources and deep, diverse reserves of imagination and ingenuity.
First, though, we have to step out of our echo chambers. From Abraham Lincoln and his team of rivals to the Giving Pledge, our nation’s history is littered with examples of Americans committing not only to being our best selves but also to investing in one another. Our country is at our worst when its citizens convince themselves they’re perfect — but it’s at its best when we challenge ourselves and each other to be more perfect.
Ryan Newberry is in his second year at NYU Wagner. He is Managing Editor for Online Publications for The Wagner Review, Vice Chair of Wagner Advocacy and Political Action, and Communications Chair for Students for Criminal Justice Reform. He’s an aspiring nonprofit fundraiser with over a decade of experience in digital marketing and journalism.