Robert A. Levine 12-11-12
A belief in American exceptionalism has been in the nation’s DNA since its birth, fostered by the Founding Fathers and foreign visitors like de Toqueville. Indeed, the reality of a republican form of government, with free men able to elect their own leaders, was alien to the rest of the world when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written and America came into being in the late 18th century.
Over time and after much conflict, America’s franchise was expanded to include all adults, male and female, black and white, and its system of government stood as an example for other nations. But in addition to the universal franchise and freedoms defined in the Constitution and its amendments, America also offered a chance for anyone who was smart and willing to work hard to be successful; to climb from the lower segments of society and accumulate wealth and power. This ability to transcend status at birth and enjoy upward mobility was at the heart of American exceptionalism along with the vote and guaranteed freedoms. America was seen as a land of opportunity and the reason immigrants from all over the world wanted to come to our shores.
Throughout our history, politicians have lauded American exceptionalism and emphasized how their policies would preserve and augment what makes America special. During the last half century, they described how America’s military was the strongest, its economy the most vibrant, its educational system superior, and its health care system the best in the world. For the most part, they ignored the nation’s deficiencies, particularly if additional revenues would be required to fix the problems.
Though it is true that America’s military is the strongest in the world, it has cost us trillions of dollars over the years, money that might have been utilized to bolster the nation in ways that could have been more fruitful. America spent more on defense last year than the next thirteen nations combined, including China, Russia, Iran, Japan and the European powers. And though we fought two wars in the last decade, taxes were reduced at the same time, increasing our debt and dependence on other nations. As Paul Kennedy noted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers- “If too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term.”
Because we have had misplaced priorities in apportioning government funds, inefficiencies in monitoring what we spend, and an unwillingness to raise adequate revenues, America is no longer exceptional in many ways. Included is our health care system, where unnecessary care flourishes, costs are the highest in the world, and overall care is mediocre, as shown by the rankings in life expectancy and infant mortality. In addition, America’s once impressive educational system is currently inadequate on the K-12 level. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling and broad band connectivity lags many other advanced nations. Government support for research and development, which once led the developed world and was responsible for the Internet and other innovative technologies, has been steadily decreasing, a concern for our economic future. Of course, over all hangs the specter of our national debt.
And though our nation is still perceived as the land of opportunity, the ability to rise from the lower to the middle or upper classes in America is more difficult now than in most other industrialized nations. One important element that stifles upward ascension is the cost of higher education. The vast degree of income inequality is another constraining factor for those on the lower rungs. Weakening of the union movement, with its effect on wages and benefits for workers, also plays a role. Most of the electorate, however, is unaware of the change that has occurred in social mobility and still believes the American dream is intact for those willing to work hard.
Though our budget deficits and the national debt must be addressed, our other problems also have to be considered if American exceptionalism is to be more than a meaningless phrase. This will require more revenue for the federal government, more support for vital programs, as well as managing spending cuts in a logical fashion. Taxes on the wealthy must be raised and since the entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid are major sources of our debt, ways must be found to make them more efficient and lower their costs. If unnecessary care, which makes up 30 percent of overall health care spending ($900 billion last year), could be significantly curtailed, this would be an important step forward.
Current income inequality must be reduced and social mobility increased, if we wish to insure the reality of American exceptionalism and the American dream.