For decades and since the end of the Second World War, US politicians repeatedly presented their country as an ethical political, military and economic superpower, unrivalled in history, with its much envied American way of life. And indeed, to the rest of the world, struggling to survive and rebuild following the second war, the United States was the only example worth following, in spite of the great ideological divide, the Iron Curtain years and the wars of independence that wreaked havoc on much of Africa and Asia.
With the dramatic fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, countries that emerged from under the yoke of communism sought to adopt the capitalist system, which arguably was behind America’s greatness. And despite all the valid criticisms of the evils of liberal capitalism and the socioeconomic inequalities that it is bound to create, the American experience continued to stand out leading to the rise of the concept of “American exceptionalism” referring to the nature of the United State as a uniquely powerful and free nation based on personal liberty and democratic ideals. Furthermore, the concept was anchored in the belief that the United States possesses qualities that make it unique, different, and special.
So obsessed with its own image around the world that the late US President Ronald Reagan, who took credit for bringing down the “evil empire” that is the Soviet Union, repeatedly used the phrase of a “city on a hill” to refer to America’s supposed standing in the world, where the rest of the world can look at it for moral guidance.
But in reality America’s image has been slowly and continuously ebbing around the world, especially in the last three decades. The US foreign policy, which more often than not relied on military might and the principles of interventionism and containment, has led to plenty of suffering in many nations. Its attempt to shape the world according to its own image had backfired, especially following the 9/11 terror attacks.
The rise of political populism
The rise of political populism under former President Donald Trump left American society more polarised. America’s exceptionalism had come to a critical fork in the road. Liberal capitalism had benefited the 1 per cent at the expense of the rest of Americans.
In recent years the world watched in awe as young Americans with guns stormed schools to kill innocent students and teachers. Gun violence and school shootings have become a uniquely American phenomenon. According to the Sandy Hook Promise website, each day 12 children die from gun violence in America. Another 32 are shot and injured. This does not happen anywhere in the world — only in America.
The US has had 2032 school shootings since 1970, 27 this year alone. And yet appeals to have even a dialogue over gun control in America have been derailed by the right wing flank of the Republican Party, supported by the powerful gun lobby, which funds US politicians.
According to the BBC, in 2020 alone, more than 45,000 Americans died at the end of a barrel of a gun, whether by homicide or suicide, more than any other year on record. The figure represents a 25 per cent increase from five years prior, and a 43 per cent increase from 2010. Again this happens only in America.
Universal health insurance to all
The biggest economy in the world, with trillions of dollars spent on the military, has one of the worst infrastructures among the seven most industrialised countries, with thousands of bridges, highways and airport terminals in bad need of an overhaul.
Furthermore, according to the US census, in 2020, 8.6 per cent of people, or 28 million, did not have health insurance at any point during the year. More children under the age of 19 in poverty were uninsured in 2020 than in 2018. Uninsured rates for children under the age of 19 in poverty rose 1.6 percentage points to 9.3 per cent. Political battles have been fought, and lost, to provide universal health insurance to all Americans.
In comparison, Japan’s statutory health insurance system (SHIS) covers 98.3 per cent of the population, while the separate Public Social Assistance Program, for impoverished people, covers the remaining 1.7 per cent. In the United Kingdom public health care covers all permanent residents, about 58 million people.
Homelessness is becoming a major issue in America with more than half a million being documented as such in 2020, while, also according to the US census, there were 37.2 million people living in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019.
In fact, the US is lagging in most critical indicators, including one of the most important which is education. A recent PISA, Program for International Student Assessment, results placed the US an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the US ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
When a British journalist confronted Republican Senator Ted Cruz recently and asked him why school shootings happen only in the United States, Cruz turned at the reporter and said “why is it that people come from all over the world to America? ‘Cause it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on earth. Stop being a propagandist.” This was a clear case of self-denial about the dire state America finds itself in.
The truth of the matter is that US exceptionalism has come to indicate negative rather than positive things. Much can be said about the US foreign policy shortcomings but today the US society is grappling with challenges that are exclusively of its own making. The world is watching.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.