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‘American exceptionalism’: What is it and is it true?

We hear the phrase so often that we forget to ask ourselves what it’s supposed to mean.

We hear the phrase “American exceptionalism” so often that we forget to ask ourselves what it’s supposed to mean, what facts support the notion and whether those facts are real or exist mostly in the truthiness region of our fevered national self-adoration.

Surely every nation is exceptional is some way or another. The phrase “American exceptionalism” apparently dates at least from Alexis de Tocqueville’s book about America in the 1830s, and apparently means that we are exceptional in exceptional ways, with the details of these ways to be filled in later or to meet the needs of a speaker at a political rally, who needs to hear some applause and asserts, for example and against all evidence, that the United States has the greatest health care system in the world.

On Friday (forgive me for being slow to mention it), the New York Times ran a terrific piece headlined “The Opiate of Exceptionalism,” in which Times writer Scott Shane argued that “this national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed [because…] Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.”

Shane notes that the United States is number one in the world in the rate of obesity and the portion of its population that it imprisons, but neither of those issues gets mentioned on the campaign trail.

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On the other hand, in the portion of children living in poverty “of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania…This country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education.”

A candidate who wanted to bring up hard unpleasant truths, Shane wrote, “might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.”

Social mobility refers to the likelihood that a person will move across socioeconomic or, to use a forbidden word, “class” lines during their lifetimes. The American self-myth is that this is the nation of opportunity, and sometimes it is. But compared to other developed nations, ours is a nation in which the children of the rich get (or stay) rich and the children of the poor are likely to remain poor.