The Mythology of American Exceptionalism | A Domestic View

The Mythology of American Exceptionalism | A Domestic View

Written By: David Kelly
Published 1 March 2019

In part one of this two part article mini series, I analyzed the how the mythology of American Exceptionalism applies to U.S. foreign policy. If you have not read that article yet, I highly suggest doing so, as it will give much needed context for this article. This article is part two, which looks at several aspects of America, domestically.

Maybe the United States is not the “city on a hill” in terms of foreign policy. Could it be true that America is a “city on a hill” domestically?  Is American way of life at home exceptional? The answer to this question highly depends on what your definition of exceptional entails. In this article I explore American domestic life ranging from quality of life and happiness to healthcare and criminal justice.


The United States is the only developed country that does not have universal health coverage for its citizens  Americans pay double for health coverage and triple for medications in comparison to what other highly developed nations do.

The Commonwealth Fund, which supports independent research on health care globally, ranked the United States 11th out of 11 highly developed nations in provision of health care. The rankings were conducted based upon effectiveness of care, safety of care, coordination of care, patient-centrality of care, cost-related problems, timeliness of care, efficiency, equity, and healthiness of citizens.

Moreover, more than 29 million Americans still do not have coverage. 7 million have lost health coverage under Donald Trump.

The U.S. is also the leading OCED country in obesity. 36.4% of Americans are obese. The OCED average is 22.7%.

Question: Does a nation where citizens pay double for coverage and triple for medications, while leaving 29 million uninsured, ranks 11th out of 11 in health care system success have an exceptional health care system when comparing it to the rest of highly developed countries?


How happy are Americans? According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, America ranks #18 in self reported happiness. America has never ranked in the top 10 and fell four spots from its ranking in 2017. Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland make up the top 4.

Question: Is a country exceptional in comparison to others in which their citizens are increasingly becoming less happy with every passing year due to a myriad of reasons?

Quality of Life

America is not in the Top 10 nations with highest quality of life, according to the World Economic Forum.

The World Economic Forum bases quality of life on three criteria:

  1. Basic Human Needs, which includes medical care, sanitation, and shelter.
  2. Foundations of well-being, which covers education, access to technology, and life expectancy
  3. Opportunity, which looks at personal rights, freedom of choice, and general tolerance.

Unsurprisingly, there is high correlation between quality of life rankings and self reported happiness. Every country that ranked in the top 10 for quality of life also ranked ahead of the United States in the World Happiness report. Finland, for example, ranked #1 in both.

Child mortality is also higher in the US than any other advanced economy. Adult Americans also live shorter lives: Average US life expectancy is 78.8 years, nearly two years less than the OECD average. For comparison, Japan has the longest life expectancy in the OECD, at 83.7 years.

Question: Is a nation which ranks outside of the top 10 in quality of life experienced by its citizens, has the highest child mortality rate among advanced economies, and maintains average life expectancy for adults less than the OCED average superior to all other nations?


The United States has the second-highest country based upon poverty rate among rich countries, trailing only Israel. Just over 17% of Americans live in poverty. Astoundingly, 23.1 % children live in poverty as found by UNICEF. This is the second highest child poverty rate among wealthy nations. Only Romania ranks higher than the United States in this department.

Question: Is a nation that is defined as exceptional one that ranks second highest in both general poverty and child poverty among wealthy nations?

Criminal Justice

Unbeknownst to many, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

America contains roughly 4.4% of the world’s population yet 22% of the world’s prison population.

The United States has increasingly been housing their inmates in for-profit prisons.

Question: If America is the “land of the free” and a purported model for justice throughout the world, why does it have the highest incarceration rate?


The United States ranks average in basic literary and problem solving skills among OCED countries. Advanced literacy scores in the United States rank below OCED average.

Student borrowers in the United States are overwhelmingly burdened with debt in comparison to other nations. America’s student loan debt has reached a crisis state, exceeding $1.5 trillion as of 2019. 44.2 million American borrowers owe on average $37,172 in student loans. For comparison the United Kingdom’s student loan debt is merely $100 billion.

About 24 countries worldwide provide tuition free or nearly-tuition free college to their citizens. The United States is not one of them.

Question: Can a nation boasting average rankings in literary and problem solving skills and burdening college graduates beneath $1.5 trillion with student debt claim superiority over nations which rank higher in problem solving and literacy, while also investing into their nation’s students through higher level education?

Maternity Leave

Alongside Lesotho,  the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that do not mandate paid maternity leave.

Question: Is a nation that does not protect mothers in maternity exceptional in comparison to nations that do so?


The Trump Administration has stated that the globe will see a rise in global temperatures by seven degrees as soon as 2100.

On average, 20.9% of world energy consumption uses renewable electricity output. In the United States this figure is only 12%. This is also far below the OCED average of 20.2%.

This is all taking place while 97% of scientists agree that Climate change is taking place and humanity is largely responsible for it.

Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists (

Question: Is a country which acknowledges the dangerous increasing heat of the planet yet remains tethered to non-renewable energy to a higher degree than other nations have superiority over all other nations?


The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) ranks the United States as a D+ infrastructure grade. Aviation, dams, drinking water, and roads all received D grades. Bridges, ports, and solid waste got a C+.

Towns and Cities with Most Severe Drinking Water Problems:

  • Milwaukee, WI
  • Brady, TX
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Detroit, MI
  • Modesto, CA
  • Dallas, TX
  • Silicon Valley, CA

Question: Can a nation with a D+ infrastructure rating claim domestic exceptionalism?

Voter Participation

The United States is one of the few countries where eligible citizens aren’t automatically registered to vote. When it comes to democratic institution, the US has one of the lowest turnouts among high-income countries.

Final Words

I believe that falsely presumed arrogance is the biggest hindrance to progress of any kind. Consider for example a particular skill in which you have developed, such as playing an instrument or speaking a new language. Can you improve? Always. No matter how good of a musician you are, you can always hone your skills. If you believe that you are the best, most exceptional musician without proper merit, however, you may not feel the need to become any better.

On the other hand, there exists the argument that what made you such a great musician will secure that reputation indefinitely. A strong work ethic, practice schedule, and a mind open to learning will help you hold your position.

What if you believe that you are the best and actually are not the best? What defines the “best musician in the world” is highly subjective. Different people have different opinions about what constitutes greatness in music and in the arts at large.

Where exceptionalism among nations and being the greatest musician in the world differ is among their objectivity. Going on an objective policy analysis, America is not the most superior nation in the world. Could it have been at one time? Yes. Could it be in the future? Yes. Is it now? My research reveals a resounding no.

Writing this article may be blasphemy in the eyes of many Americans on both sides of the aisle. It most certainly is blasphemous among the political establishment. Like it or not, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan acknowledged that America is, in fact, not great, yet it gained much popularity. When presented with a choice of the political establishment and a supposed outsider businessmen who filed for bankruptcy six times, Americans chose the latter.

Let me be very clear –  I love America. But we have to collectively realize that as great of a nation America is, it lacks severely in a myriad of critical areas. Why is it wrong to want to improve a nation’s failures or missteps? It seems that any candidate who has run for office on the idea that America faces intense scrutiny from the political establishment and mainstream media. These candidates range from Donald Trump and Rand Paul to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and now Tulsi Gabbard.

American Exceptionalism is a highly dangerous myth. It is a danger to American citizens and those of other nations throughout the world. History and time are constantly progressing forward. It is not easy to see this as the present unfolds, but years from now we will be able to look back at this current time period with clearer eyes. Trump’s gift to America may be that he has revealed the most unsavory parts of American government and policymaking. Thus, leading to our ability to collectively recognize these faults and provide a corrective course moving forward.

This can and will only happy if we expel the dangerous mythology of American Exceptionalism.

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