“Please stop telling me America is great.” That’s the title of a 2019 viral New York Times video that mocks the “mythology” that America is the greatest country on earth.
Even more extreme rhetoric, arguing that the US is essentially and irredeemably evil, has become increasingly common.
A USA Today/Suffolk poll last year also raised questions about belief in American exceptionalism. Only 32% of those surveyed called the U.S. “the greatest country in the world,” with another 28% saying it was “one of the greatest.” However, 12% thought the U.S. was just “average,” 24% believed the U.S. had fallen behind other major countries, and 3% said it was “one of the worst” of the world’s nations.
As usual, opinions split down party and racial lines, with Republicans and Whites more strongly supporting the idea of America’s greatness than Democrats and African Americans.
If you’re inclined to believe that America isn’t great, I doubt I’ll convince you otherwise, but I’ll try.
I should first say that I’m biased. As a journalist I’ve dedicated myself to being as balanced as possible, but I can’t do that here.
I am a Cuban exile. Along with my parents, my toddler brother, and my newborn sister, I came to the U.S. before I turned three, about 18 months after Fidel Castro took power. We left Cuba with little money and my parents soon had three more kids to feed. But the U.S. welcomed us, as few countries would have. My parents worked hard and the U.S. provided us with opportunities incomparable to those we would have had anywhere else. We are forever grateful.
Still, the argument over America’s greatness shouldn’t be partisan.
On the right, chest-thumping patriotism is de rigueur, but conservatives often contradict themselves. Former President Trump’s “Make America Great” slogan implied America had somehow stopped being great. His dark inaugural speech was a laundry list of America’s faults. Constant complaining from conservatives about everything that’s wrong with the U.S. belies their facile proclamations about American exceptionalism.
It’s at least as bad on the left. A Gallup poll last summer found national pride had fallen to a new low, with only 24% of Democrats “extremely proud” to be American, a percentage that rose to 31% in this year's survey after President Biden's election. Still, that's down drastically from 56% in 2013. The lack of national pride echoes comments made by Michelle Obama during the 2008 campaign when she said she was proud of her country for the first time. Or the infamous speech from the first episode from Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom,” where the main character goes on a diatribe saying “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
That’s the tack taken by the New York Times video. It ridicules the thought of America being the greatest country, proceeding to spin statistics to portray the U.S. in the worst possible light.
Ironically, the freedom to express anti-American sentiment is one of the many things that proves this country is great. Sure, as critics point out, many other countries are free. Some are even freer economically and have greater freedom of the press.
But are they seriously arguing that America is not the beacon that has led to freedom elsewhere? Almost 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville called American democracy exceptional. It took another century for democratic ideals to start taking hold around the world.
Is the U.S. tops in everything? Of course not, and the U.S. struggles to make the top ten on most lists of the world’s best countries. The most recent Social Progress Index, which assesses social and environmental performance of world countries, ranked the United States No. 28.
Does the U.S. have its faults? Sure, and there are many, rarely more in evidence than over the past year. Racism, income and wealth inequality, poverty, infant mortality, gun violence, abuse of women in the workplace, white supremacy, and homophobia are scandalously prominent among them.
In no way excusing discrimination of any sort, but in what diverse society does racism not exist? In fact, many countries discriminate harshly against some their citizens, just because they are of a different class, race, or caste. Antisemitism and racism are very much a problem in European countries that often rank higher than the U.S. on “best-country” lists.
The “misery loves company” and “whataboutist” argument is odious in discussions about race and should never be used to diminish crucial efforts to combat racism. But it is relevant when comparing the American reality to that of other countries.
And remember: The U.S. is much more diverse, bigger, and more populous than any country that’s ranked higher in almost any category. Countries that get better ratings are all much more homogeneous and smaller.
Nobody can be proud of the way many migrants have been treated recently. But what other country in the world deals with more than 100,000 crossing its borders illegally every month?
The prevalence of mass shootings is an outrage. The astronomical number of shootings of any kind is a national embarrassment. Wherever you stand on the Second Amendment, no sane person can say American gun policies are working.
Our primary and secondary educational achievements are lagging those of other well-to-do countries.
Prescription drug abuse is killing Americans at an obscene rate.
The divisive U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a horrifically high death rate. But the economy still fared better than most and the vaccine development effort bordered on miraculous.
Critics also point out that we spend far more on healthcare than anybody else, but we are not among the top thirty healthiest countries. They ignore that the U.S. is much healthier and has a higher life expectancy than any of the top ten most populous countries.
Are we “just OK,” as the New York Times video concludes? Please.
Yes, the list of America’s historical sins is long, but is anyone going to seriously argue that this country has not been the greatest force for good worldwide?
American aid, inventions, and investments have lifted more people out of poverty around the world than all other countries combined.
Yes, the U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes, but the world is more democratic greatly thanks to American influence.
And don’t forget that America gave the world the understanding of electricity, the telephone, the light bulb, the airplane, mass production of cars, mobile phones, the personal computer, GPS, and the internet.
The U.S. barely squeaks into the top ten of richest countries per capita, but it’s the most charitable. In absolute dollar contributions, there’s no comparison: The U.S. is the most generous nation on Earth. Even when looking at charitable intangibles, such as volunteering, the U.S. is a world leader.
Also, the U.S. is best at medical research, drug development, tech innovation, artificial intelligence, robotics, space, aerospace, the military, media, and entertainment. American universities are the envy of the world. The U.S. dollar is the world’s unofficial currency. The U.S. also has the best amusement parks, the most extensive wildlife preservation, and, by far, the largest road network. And what would we have done without fast food? Thank you, McDonald’s.
Bill Clinton said “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America.”
We should analyze what’s wrong. We should learn from America’s failures and mistakes. We must insist on high standards. To whom much is given much should be required.
Yes, jingoism is a bad thing, but patriotism is not.
The U.S. is the biggest magnet for people around the world. They vote with their feet and often risk everything hoping for a shot at the American dream.
How often do Americans leave? They vote by not using their feet.
Soviet-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff spoke for millions of immigrants who have come here seeking a better life with his catch-phrase: “What a country!”
It is easy to take the blessings of the U.S. for granted. So, take it from this immigrant: America is the greatest country in the world.