After laboring up the stairs to Gross Hall and panting as I walked into my international relations class, I overheard a blonde, international upperclassman raising his voice to make his point heard. “What I’m saying is, if America is supposedly the ‘best country in the world’, what is the second best country? What metric are we using to define best?” The class seemed bewildered by the sentiment and failed to provide an answer other than grudgingly acquiescing and agreeing that his home country was “the second best.”
His ideas are becoming more common. HBO’s show “The Newsroom” was particularly scathing in its pilot episode, and, just last week, a friend showed me an article from The Atlantic entitled “To make America great again, we need to leave the country.” As you probably guessed by its inflammatory title, the article echoes opinions the blonde upperclassman would probably agree with. The argument seems compelling. Empirically, the United States is ranked 25th in student performance in mathematics, 34th in infant mortality, 21st in percentage of people below the national poverty line and 15th in general life satisfaction. Healthcare is not granted universally, just six companies control most of our major media and The Brookings Institute released a report recently that indicates upward mobility has slowed in the last 20 years.
Truth be told, I don’t think that America is perfect. Our country is fallible, and just because I am a citizen of the United States doesn’t mean that I am overcome with blind nationalistic pride. The problem that my generation, the millennials, has with our country is the same problem that leads to so much dissatisfaction with life: We expect perfection. We all want to be the CEOs and bosses, not the employees. Similarly, when we see that our country isn’t the best in every cherry-picked category, we rationalize in a very US News College Ranking-esque manner that our “lower rank” shows some objective truths.
What is it, then, that makes America so exceptional?
Is it that we have the largest consumer market in the world, equivalent to almost 30 percent of the world’s purchasing power? U.S treasury bonds are still the safest investment in the world, and with such a large international influence, it’s no wonder that New York is the global financial capital. With a median income over $44,000, the average American enjoys a standard of living that is one of the best in the world.
Is it American advocacy of the rule of law, freedom and constitutional liberalism? Without question, we are not the only country in the world that has freedom, but oftentimes the burden falls on us to support these lofty goals not only at home but abroad. As the leader of the free world, America has the unique opportunity to support democratic ideals in the international system and influence the expansion of these fundamental rights. Scholars have noted that “…when the U.S. leads on human rights, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, other countries follow.”
Is it that America remains the hub of opportunity and the foremost destination for higher education? Thirty of the world’s top 45 universities are located in the United States. There is a reason Chinese enrollment at U.S. institutions increased by 21 percent last year, and there is a reason the world’s best doctors continue to flock to the US of A. More than a third of all Nobel laureates are on America’s roster, and a large variety of internationals look to America to emulate the successes we have experienced here.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” While he may have been talking about the possibility of conflict with the South, the quote nevertheless remains relevant today. Gallup reported that a small minority of Americans felt Congress was handling its job effectively. Yet, in the same report, it was revealed that a large majority of Americans who knew their Congressman’s name felt that their representative was performing well. Shaky commitment to civic virtue and a lack of faith in our political system are the true dangers. Attacking American exceptionalism has gained traction and become fairly mainstream, and cynics are quick to leap on the faults and inadequacies of our political, social and economic institutions.
Our country isn’t perfect, and it has a long way to go to be the shining city upon a hill that Ronald Reagan idealized it to be. A proper American education teaches us to challenge the norms and constantly innovate, and it would be a damned shame if we grew complacent and stopped challenging our country to be better, to grow and to adapt. It’s unrealistic to strive for perfection in all categories; what our country needs to do is to strive to be better than it was yesterday.
That blonde, international upperclassman from my first-year political science class had a point. His challenge forces us to think critically about American exceptionalism and where it derives from, but, regardless of the imperfections, Old Glory remains the banner of the greatest country on earth. America’s potential to make the world a better place can only be realized if we can be better.
Tyler Fredricks is a Trinity sophomore. His column normally runs every other Wednesday.