Collections: Is the United States Exceptional?

It is the week of July 4th and so I hope that everyone will once again forgive me for taking a break from our normal fare to write out an argument that I’ve had brewing for quite some time. I especially beg the indulgence of all of my international readers since I am once again – in the proper tradition of my country – going to go on at some length about my country. It is, after all, what we do.

For this year’s July 4th, I want to tackle the question of ‘Is the United States exceptional or great?’ Not because I think it is a difficult question, but because I think it is such a surprisingly easy question that I find myself repeatedly frustrated that it is, in some circles, considered an interesting question. Take for instance this this Newsroom clip from 2012 that seems to make the rounds online at least once a year where the Aaron-Sorkin-hero dunks on a college sophomore by arguing, “there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re [the United States] is the greatest country in the world.”

The diatribe that statement is treated by the visual language of the scene like a truth bomb, which is why it is so odd because Jeff Daniels’ character is not merely wrong, but (as I intend to show) laughably so. Indeed, he leads into this remark with a statement that “207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom,” a statement that is not now and has never in the whole sweep of recorded history ever been remotely true. 2005 was the best year on record for freedom globally according to Freedom House and in that year 89 countries were ‘free’ countries – 46% of the world’s countries and 45.97% of the world’s people. That was the highest year of freedom ever in human history and it comes just below half of the ‘truth bomb’s’ best guess at how common freedom is. The majority of humans on Earth have never, at any point in human history, lived in a free country. One should not take their geopolitics from Aaron Sorkin.

But I wanted to address the question more broadly: to what degree can the United States be considered great, exceptional or ‘the greatest.’ But at the outset we need be very clear what we are measuring here: we are not asking if the United States is the best country. That’s an entirely subjective judgment; what the best of anything will be is going to depend mostly on what a person prefers. It is a matter of values and taste and de gustibus non est disputandum (“on taste, one must not argue”). Likewise ‘great’ is not the superlative of ‘good’ (that, as a reminder, is ‘best’); I am not asking if the United States has had a positive impact on the world here (once again a deeply subjective question). Instead ‘greatness’ is about extent, amount, ability, or eminence: great means ‘very big’ not ‘very good.’ Thus Alexander, Catherine and Peter are all called ‘great’ but one may well argue if they were ‘good.’ And ‘exceptional’ also does not mean good; things can be exceptionally bad! The point of something being exceptional is merely that it is different in uncommon ways; to be ‘great’ is to be exceptional specifically in scale.

So again, I am not asking if the United States is the ‘best’ country; I rather like my country, but I understand it is not to everyone’s taste and that is fine: different people have different opinions and everyone in the world is entitled to their own opinion except for Aaron Sorkin. I certainly cannot fault anyone who likes their own country better than I like mine. Instead I want to explore a number of ways in which the United States might clearly be considered ‘great’ or even ‘the greatest’ (either now or ever) to make the case both that the United States is obviously and indisputably exceptional and that several of these exceptional facets provide quite a lot of evidence to support the contention that the United States is, in those ways, a great country.

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I like this picture and think I’ll keep using it for my July 4th themed posts.


We should start with one observation that forms the basis for a number of others: the United States is both the biggest rich country (that is, it is the largest high income country) and the richest big country (that is, it has the highest income per capita of any country with a large population or land area) both now and at any other time in history. The largest country with a higher GDP per capita (PPP adjusted) larger than the United States is the UAE with just 9.9m people to the United State’s 331m, while the richest country larger than the United States is China with a PPP adjusted GDP per capita of just $21,364 ($14k unadjusted) to the United States’ $76,027. To put it another way, the next biggest rich country (defined as a GDP per capita PPP adjusted above $45,000) is Japan at just 125m people, a bit more than a third of the USA’s population, while the next richest big country (population over 150 million; if we drop this much further we just end up comparing the USA with Japan again) is China with well under a third of the GDP per capita.

In short then, the United States has no peer economies to which it can really be compared. There are two countries which are much larger in population but also much poorer (China and India) and there are a small number of countries which are somewhat richer, but much, much smaller. Population size does matter for the comparison too because we’re taking averages and medians to generate these sorts of statistics so it should be no surprise that countries that are, in effect, small sample sizes can produce greater outlier results; it is much harder to get on the thin end of the distribution with a very large sample set, yet the United States has clearly done this. If one, for instance, compares the EU (far closer to the United States collectively in land area and population) rather than its exceptional1 smaller components the difference becomes obvious: the EU average GDP per capita – despite being a union made up almost entirely of developed countries – is still 30% lower than the United States.

Now one might complain about measuring GDP per capita on the grounds that inequality – and the United States has quite high inequality for a developed country – means that much of that wealth doesn’t filter down. Which is true, but besides the point as the United States also has an uncommonly high median adult income, second in the OECD behind only tiny Luxembourg.2 So while inequality in the United States remains high, its economy also delivers a very high economic3 standard of living to the general population; indeed, much higher than any country of remotely comparable size.

This is of course a product of the fact that the United States is the largest economy in the world measured by the absolute value of the goods produced (that is, nominal GDP).4 Now you can argue that literally tremendous economy also produces inequality, that it doesn’t fund the government services you want or that it is generally crass and morally undesierable in some way and that’s fine. What you can’t argue is that it isn’t exceptional or great. It is, indeed, in a literal sense, the most exceptional and greatest economy presently or ever; countries stuck around subsistence are very common. Countries with nominal GDPs above $25trillion – well that is literally only ever happened once.5 That is in part because US worker productivity is very high (roughly equal with Germany) and in part because American companies have been remarkably successful. Of the largest companies in the world by revenue, the United States has four in the top ten (including both the gold and bronze medals), eight in the top twenty, and 23 of the top fifty, handily beating out China, the runner-up (3 in the top 10, 5 in the top 20, 13 in the top 50).6 At the same time the combination of an outsized economy and a high median income (thus meaning that households have lots of disposable income) means that the United States is capable of doing very big things; it has a lot of ‘surplus’ production which can be channeled into this or that.

Consequently, the United States dominates the global economy in a way that no other country does and no other country has ever done; the British Empire at its height comes closest but it existed in a system of economic ‘great powers,’ whereas the United States has, at most, just one peer economy in China. Yet for the size of its economy, China lacks many of the structural economic advantages of the United States. The US dollar remains the most commonly used international and reserve currency in the world; it’s roughly 60% share of global currency reserves effectively unchanged since the fall of the Soviet Union. And either through direct dollarization, official pegs or de facto currency pegs, the dollar serves as the currency or currency substitute of more countries than any other (though a number of countries have also anchored to the Euro). Meanwhile, because the United States hosts the largest financial center in the world (New York City) and its close allies host the next two most important (London and Tokyo), the United States with its allies (see below) is able to functionally set the rules for the global economy.

The United States is thus effectively unique: the only country to combine a large population with a very high per capita income. As implied in some of the comparisons above, the closest other candidates for ‘big countries with high income’ are Japan (125m people, $39.2k GDP per capita) and Germany (83m people, $51.86k GDP per capita) countries that are both smaller and poorer on average than the United States. And please note, poorer, not poor. Obviously both Germany and Japan are ‘rich’ countries. But that fact makes the United States’ economy both obviously exceptional and clearly great. Indeed, by absolute size, it is the greatest economy both now and at any point.


I’ll be blunt: the United States is the most technologically advanced country to have ever existed. This is a tricky metric to average because it comes so many different fields and of course many countries excel in one field or another, but no country excels in anywhere near as many fields or on as many metrics as the United States does when it comes to technology or the production of knowledge.

We can start with universities. The United States makes up 4.25% of the world’s population but around half of its top research universities. Ranking universities is to a degree subjective but one may take an average of the rankings (I’ll use this one) to get at least a rough sense of the state of things; a merely rough sense will do because the disparity is so massive nothing more precise is required. Eight of the top ten universities worldwide are American; 13 of the top 20; 23 of the top 50; 38 of the top 100. That is, to put it bluntly, preposterous, and no other country’s university system compares (though of course there are many fine universities in other countries!). It is certainly exceptional. Indeed, anyone with even a passing familiarity with academic hiring in either the STEM or humanities fields will be well aware that it has been true for decades and remains true that the flow of top-tier academic talent is towards the United States rather than away and for good reason.7

The same dominance is visible in the tech economy (indeed, the two go hand-in-hand). As Forbes counts it, of the ten largest tech companies in the world, 7 are American; 13 of the top 20. That level of dominance too is preposterous. The obvious comparison point would be the EU – a collection of developed economies roughly the same size as the United States when put together – which has just two entries on the list.8 Software in particular is astoundingly dominated by American firms (though note that list excludes companies with substantial hardware interests); ‘internet’ companies are not quite as US dominated, but the United States still makes up a simple majority of the largest companies. The point here of counting companies is that it provides at least some window into who is producing the most advanced and popular products worldwide.

Or take another way to measure the question: the COVID-19 pandemic essentially created a sudden dramatic test of the medical and bio-tech capabilities of every country in the world at essentially the same time to develop vaccines. The most effective vaccine to result from this effort was the Moderna vaccine, developed in the United States using an entirely new technology (vaccines using mRNA); essentially tied with it for effectiveness and speed of development was the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, also using mRNA, which was a United States (Pfizer) and Germany (BioNTech) collaboration. A third vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson (or Janssen) vaccine was developed by a Dutch lab of a Belgian subsidiary of an American company (Johnson and Johnson) and so represents another EU-US joint venture.9

The tricky thing, of course, with technology is that technological advancement is just that: it is about advancement,10 and so some other country might well sprint ahead tomorrow (or might have already sprinted ahead in ways that are difficult to see), but for now the United States appears to remain at the cutting edge of technological advancement and scholarly production.


Last year we talked about how the culture of the United States was unusual: in a sea of nation-states the United States is unusual in rejecting the nation as an organizing concept; I’m hesitant to say this is a unique feature of the United States, but it certainly is unusual. The United States is already an uncommonly blended country (as discussed in the link above) and only becoming more so. And despite – or perhaps because of – the difficulties that often come with such a diverse population, the United States is also arguably the world’s oldest functioning democracy and likewise arguably has the world’s oldest still-used constitution. All of which is clearly exceptional, even accounting for recent polarization and turmoil.

Despite the heterogeneity of the United States’ population, American culture is distinctive. In particular, by at least some measurements, the United States is above and away the most individualist country in the world, an outlier even compared to other English-speaking countries (which also tend towards a strong individualist bent). The United States is also effectively alone as a high-income country which is also very religious, both in terms of saying that religion is important but also in actual religious observance like daily prayer. Of course not all exceptions are good; the United States is unusually violent for a high income country. Interestingly in both religion and violence, the United States becomes much more typical if you look at all countries but is extremely exceptional as a high income country; it might well be argued that for better and for worse one thing that seems to make the United States exceptional is that it became a rich country without adopting the normal behaviors and values of other rich countries.11

Or to put it another way, the United States is the country equivalent of a rich American that nevertheless continues to insist they’re just ‘middle class.’12

On the other hand, American culture and cultural products are pervasive in a way that no other culture has ever really been. English is the most spoken language in the world (including second language speakers, who make up a large majority of English speakers), though of course this is a consequence not merely of American influence but also a legacy of British power. On the other hand it has created an avenue for the startling pervasiveness of American culture. Of the top grossing films worldwide, American production companies are responsible for all of the top 29 before Skyfall (2012) finally gives us a non-American entry.13 Even if one takes merely the ‘international‘ (meaning non-American) box-office numbers, the top ten are still entirely American films, with Chang jin hu at 1414 at last breaking the American production or co-production sweep. To put that in perspective, only counting box office outside the United States, there are three movies featuring the character ‘Captain America’ as one of the primary heroes before the first fully non-American film on the list.

The positive impact this must have on US diplomacy seems obvious.

The point here isn’t to say that other countries don’t make good movies (they do) or that those movies aren’t successful locally (they often are), but that the US film industry is alone in having a commanding presence in every media market where it isn’t actively banned by governments. American products aren’t quite so dominant in other media – the United States clearly shares the dominant position in gaming with Japan in terms of best-selling games worldwide, for instance – but for one country to be so prominent everywhere culturally is certainly exceptional. US products utterly dominate global brand recognition, for instance. In fact this level of global pervasiveness is entirely unique, a product of American cultural pervasiveness colliding with the first emergence of a truly globalized culture, itself made possible in part by information technologies invented in the United States. That has allowed the United States to project the kind of cultural hegemony that great powers might have enjoyed in their local regions, but to do so globally for the first time. No country has ever been as culturally pervasive as the United States. As a historian I can only wonder what future historians will make of the long-term impact of the American cultural moment in shaping an emerging global culture.15

It is a stunning and singular achievement and alone would be enough to mark the United States for greatness (which again is not the same as ‘goodness’ – if you hate mass produced American films, that’s fine, the point is extent and amount, not subjective quality), the signal achievement of a world historic state and culture…were it not for the next thing.


The United States today is the most powerful country to have ever existed, by functionally every metric. Even as the diplomatic and security environment the United States faces becomes more challenging (in part by our own making), the position the United States occupies today is one no other country has ever occupied.

It is generally observed that the United States continues to have the most powerful military in the world. While the American edge in military power may have eroded since the 1990s, absolutely massive U.S. military spending continues to buy an incomparably massive amount of military power. The United States operates half of the world’s active aircraft carriers, 11 of the top 11 for raw combat power (which mostly comes down to the size of their air wing). The United States has both the world’s largest air force (the United States Air Force) and the world’s second largest air force (the U.S. Navy).16 While American military equipment is not always the best (although it frequently is), the arsenal of the United States is in the top tier of essentially every class, while frequent military interventions have established a consistent track record of high performance from the men and women of the US armed forces (albeit a much more disappointing record from the decision and policy-makers of the US government).

Moreover, the sort of comparisons that get made counting tanks or soldiers often undersell the gap in capabilities, especially when it comes to power projection. France required US logistics and airlift support in order to operate in Mali and the broader Sahel (about 2,000 miles from Paris); Russian logistics was unable to cover the trip to Kyiv (about 450 miles); the United States, by contrast, has conducted major military operations in Kuwait (1991, 6,500 miles from Washington, D.C.), Iraq (2003-2017, roughly the same distance) and Afghanistan (2001-2021, c. 6,900 miles). No other country today is capable of global power projection on remotely the same scale, at least for now.

But raw military power (‘hard power’) isn’t the only kind of power. Fortunately for the United States, it also leads in every other kind of power. Normally due to balancing behavior, we’d expect a large coalition of allies to oppose U.S. interests, but instead the opposite is true: the United States leads the largest collection of peacetime allies in human history. The United States has essentially constructed a web of interlocking alliances with the USA at the center; NATO alone makes up a simple majority of global military spending before one even considers other treaty allies of the United States like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and at least notionally most of South America. Of the ten largest economies in the world, the United States has mutual defense arrangements with seven of them (not counting itself, so eight of the ten are all on one side) and one more (India) is a ‘major defense partner’ but not a treaty ally. It is an alliance system so expansive that effective global diplomatic balancing becomes impractical; countries whose interests oppose the United States can contest American interests locally, but struggle to put together any kind of coherent anti-US bloc outside of symbolic votes in the UN.

That diplomatic ‘soft’ power has in turn enabled the United States to consolidate tremendous amounts of institutional power. The UN of course has its headquarters in New York and the United States and its close allies France and the United Kingdom collectively have a simple majority of the permanent members of the UN Security Council .17 The World Bank is headquartered in Washington D.C. and the United States has the largest voting share in its governance (followed closely by US allies Japan, Germany, France and the UK); the IMF is likewise headquartered in D.C. and every single one of its first deputy managing directors has been an American, without exception (but Stanley Fischer had dual citizenship), while the managing directorship rotates. While the WTO is notionally more neutral, once again the interests of the United States and its close allies dominate. The ironic success of all of this is that the United States created a bunch of international institutions – these are only some of them – for its own interests and then successfully convinced a critical mass of the rest of the world that these were true international institutions (a task in which the wide diffusion of American culture and thus America’s own positive self-image, played a major part).

The result is an international system where, without declaring war or instituting a blockade, the United States can, almost casually, organize a large coalition of countries to do things like banishing the world’s 11th largest economy from global financial markets, forcing that country into default in just four months. Likewise the United States has spent the last fifteen years demonstrating with some vividness the power that the United States can exert over Iran’s economy (13th largest by GDP), crippling it almost at a whim.

The result of all of this is the bizarre situation that the world’s foremost land power is also the world’s foremost naval power, which is also the world’s foremost diplomatic power, which is also the world’s foremost economic power, entrenched in the high ground of most of the world’s international institutions. One may of course argue that this situation is changing, albeit slowly, but at the moment the contrast is startling: the sphere of Russian influence does quite reach Kyiv (about 150 miles from the Russian border) and the sphere of Chinese influence does not quite reach Taipei (about the same distance, but over water), but American influence evidently reaches both despite the former being 4,300 miles and the latter 6,500 miles away from American shores.

That has never happened before; it may well never happen again. We have seen regional hegemons similarly dominant in their local neighborhoods (the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty, Achaemenid Persia, etc.) and to lack peers locally, but the United States is the first and only country to have done this on a global scale and to lack true peer competitors anywhere. Even as the ‘monopolar moment’ seems to be coming to an end, the United States’ position as ‘first among equals’ among the ‘great powers’ is historically unparalleled; no state has ever been so clearly without peers influence and power except for maybe – wait for it – the Mongols.

Now one may well argue that countries shouldn’t aspire to this sort of greatness, that this kind of power-building is an old, outdated way of thinking. And that’s a fair argument! I push my own students on this point, asking them what does ‘greatness’ mean if Alexander of Macedon was ‘great’ and if they are comfortable with that definition of greatness. But it also seems inarguable that this definition of greatness, rooted in a country’s ability to project various forms of power abroad, is by far the most common definition of greatness applied to a country and that in this oldest and most common definition of greatness the United States has succeeded and succeeded like no other state before it. And it goes without saying that being the only ever global hegemon, the United States is exceptional.


Now at the end of this you might be ready to argue (who am I kidding, no doubt at least someone stopped reading many paragraphs ago to angrily post this comment) that while yes the United States does excel by these measures, there are all sorts of other measures by which the United States does not. And you’re right! And that should hardly be surprising: most things are tradeoffs where scarce resources can be directed to some things and thus not others. This is why we are not debating what the ‘best’ country is: for someone who prefers the things that the United States traded away to get these exceptional outcomes, the United States must look like quite a terrible country.

And if I may editorialize for a moment, I think one can notice a pattern in these tradeoffs that unite many of the ways that the United States is unusual: a heady, devil-take-the-hindmost rush to the frontiers of possibility, a comfort with an ethos of (to borrow Facebook’s old motto), “Move fast and break things.” Individual liberty, expansive power (military and cultural), technological development, and economic growth end up prioritized in the United States above communal safety, domestic services or egalitarian educational or economic outcomes. To put it simply then, the United States might be typified by an emphasis on achieving greatness (as traditionally defined) above almost everything else.18 The very bigness is the goal, driving forward towards larger profits, newer technology, more clicks and views, greater military power, more allies19, damn the consequences. That’s not the only thing at the heart of America, but it is one of the things.

And on those terms it is hard not to conclude that the United States is a success, indeed, it is a country that has succeeded on those terms like no other country has ever succeeded. It has resulted in a country which is not merely exceptional, but exceptionally exceptional – that is, the United States is highly unusual in an unusually high number of ways. And, as I noted at the beginning, it is unusual in fairly obvious ways, evident enough that one has to accomplish some serious mental contortions not to notice what a strange, expansive and powerful country the United States is.

The interesting question then is not if the United States is a great country but if it will be a good country, if all of that vastness in wealth, technology, influence and power will be put towards some worthy aim, both judged against our ideals20 and against the historical behavior of other great powers.21 It’s a question that only Americans can really answer, in our doing. I strive and hope that we answer well.

Happy (belated) Fourth of July everyone. Next week we’re back to regular programming – we’re going to be looking at the nuts and bolts of keeping an army fed and moving on the march.

  1. And they are exceptional – I am not slighting here the achievements of Norway or Ireland or Luxembourg or whoever! The thing about greatness and exceptionality is that it is possible for many people (or countries) to be great and exceptional in different ways. Again, the argument here is not that the USA is best, but that it is unusual in ways tending towards greatness in some sense.
  2. Don’t worry Luxembourgers, you know we Lux you.
  3. An important word. Obviously there are many other factors in a country’s overall standard of living, many of which are difficult to quantify.
  4. Why use nominal GDP here instead of a PPP adjusted statistic? PPP is great for measuring the actual standard of living an economy produces, but if we want to know the actual raw size we are better off looking at the market value of everything produced (nominal GDP).
  5. A point which would not change with the inclusion of the EU economies all aggregated together.
  6. This despite all but two of the Chinese companies on that list being state owned.
  7. Now one may well argue that looking at other indicators of academic achievement that education in the United States is not as well distributed as in some other countries or that achievement in certain areas is not as high. And I agree! As with many things, this is a question of priorities and focus (with a dash of ‘big countries with diverse populations are harder to manage.’)
  8. Though while we are noting exceptional countries here, Taiwan and South Korea both have two entries in the top 20. With 50m people, South Korea is thus about as well represented on the list per capita as the United States, while with 23m people Taiwan punches well above its weight, even compared to the USA.
  9. And as obvious from that, this is not to say other countries didn’t slow demonstrate prowess in vaccine development, merely to note that the United States was conspicuous at the forefront (but not that it was necessarily alone there).
  10. There is also the question of distribution – that is who has access to the technologies that exist. Here one may well admit that the United States does not do as well; per capita broadband access in the USA is, for instance, higher than Japan but lower than Germany. Again I do not contend the United States is best in every category; indeed because I think many of the things here are necessarily tradeoffs, no country is likely to ever be best in every category.
  11. And of course this is a point where the issue of values becomes very clear. One could easily cast the ‘normal behaviors and values of other rich countries’ as either national maturity or godless complacency. I have no interest in litigating that debate (except to say that extremes of both positions are silly), but it is a point where one’s values are going to dictate what one thinks about the United States’ exceptional nature, but that doesn’t change the exceptionality of that nature.
  12. My better half is responsible for this joke. I am responsible for its poor delivery.
  13. Though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were both co-productions with non-American companies and based off of literary works from the UK, so there is some wiggle room here.
  14. Or alternately, Harry Potter at 12; I am going here by film producers rather than actors to try to be consistent but this does create some obvious oddities with an American-produced adaptation of a famous novel from the United Kingdom.
  15. Assuming we, as a species, make it that long.
  16. Depending on how one counts, the Russian Federation can edge into second place ahead of the U.S. Navy.
  17. Which in turn lets them force Russia and China into sometimes embarrassing self-protective vetos.
  18. Though of course geography, chance and a hundred other factors play a huge role as well.
  19. As I write this, welcome Sweden and Finland to the club! Commemorative ‘We <3 NATO’ baseball caps will be Amazon’d as soon as all of the ratification is complete.
  20. A rather high bar
  21. An extremely low bar.

498 thoughts on “Collections: Is the United States Exceptional?

  1. I’m going to ignore the US being exceptional relative to it’s temporal peers (because it clearly is, we can have the argument about how prof. just ignores the actual salient points about the ideology of american exceptionalism but that’s a different matter)

    But I think a bigger problem when trying to do these kinds of cross-temporal things in that yes, the US is exceptional… But all hegemons are exceptional. Rome was in it’s time exceptional, and while you can make comparisons, they’re not relaly meaningful (especially considering how the US itself is still influenced to a large extent by roman culture, especially by it’s adopted state religion) But how can you compare the empire of Sargon and the empire of Joe Biden? They work under entirely different constraints, and trying to quantify some kind of objective ratio quickly becomes meaningless. (as is oftne mentioned, your average city councillor probably in some ways has more power at his disposal than Sargon of Akkad did… and in some ways significantly less)

    The thing about history is, that *every moment is unique* every event is an exception that only happens once. While we can try to fit it into patterns, in practice that often tells us more about what we consider important than the event itself, because every event will have a thousand million little details that differ. History cannot repeated or duplicated it only happens once. Is the US exceptional? Yes! So is Rome and Han China, or even the the smaller states or proto state.s They’re *all* exceptions. There’s no one like them. Each piece of history is a unique moment.

    1. From a geographical point of view, the US has no peers among historic hegemons. It has the best river system in the world, the best agricultural land in the world, the best defendable borders. It’s both the strongest land power and naval power in the world. The US is practically an island, like former powers UK and Japan. But it has all the advantages of an island nation, and none of the drawbacks thanks to the huge amount of habitual land.

  2. I think you may have undersold the scope and quality of broad American education, at least historically. It was (for white people, anyway) at or near the best in terms of available/compulsory primary and secondary education until at least a good way into the 20th Century.

  3. I would counter argue that noting the US as the oldest true democracy, would, by it’s own logic, outright remove the US from contention as the oldest true democracy- If the standard is set to ‘with different allowances on who can vote as are allowed now’, there are democracies that pre-date the establishment of the US and are still present today, often with similar changes in structure. If that standard is set to ‘with similar standards as today’ or as ‘where a majority of the population could vote’, the US did not do that ahead of New Zealand, the first nation in history where a majority of people could vote, and which is still democratic. (the obvious issue is that as New Zealand was the first country not to exclude 50% of the population based on gender, the differences between US broadening it’s voting base and less democratic countries broadening their voting base is mathmatically far less significant than that straight plus +50%, especially given that after the US granted women the vote, it still hadn’t granted all adults the vote, and wouldn’t until much later than many similar aged ‘democracies’).

  4. (This comment is in response to the debate above over whether the EU is democratic or not, but since it didn’t really seem to fit as a response to any individual comment in particular, I decided to put it down here instead.)

    I think the main reason why people consider the EU “undemocratic” is that there’s no real European demos: people (especially people who complain about the EU) tend to identify primarily as Croatian, Italian, Polish, etc., and only secondarily as European (and perhaps thirdly as citizens of the EU, if they distinguish between the two). So I think arguments about the distribution of power among various EU institutions or the apportionment of seats in the EU Parliament kind of miss the point: the sense of undemocraticness doesn’t come from such technical considerations, but from the sense that the nation’s democratic wishes — the wishes of its demos — are being overridden. Which, since no country has a majority in any EU institution, is always going to be true, no matter how many powers you give to the EU Parliament.

    1. For me that was very much not the case. I feel strongly European – more so than British even. The EU feels undemocratic because it feels unaccountable, and it passed a lot of rules that are not just not what British people want, but not what most people in any EU country want.

      1. I think some of the perception of unaccountability comes from the propensity of the media (especially, but not exclusively) in Britain to characterise the EU as comprised of “unelected bureaucrats”, which obviously doesn’t help.

        But more than that, there seems to be a fundamental identity crisis at the heart of the European project, and in particular whether it’s an association of member states or a post-national organisation. It is structured like the former but often seems to perceive itself – and behave – like the latter, and I think that also reinforces the perception of unaccountability. The Parliament likes to throw its weight around as a directly-elected (and therefore “democratic” body) but its members represent vast, diffuse constituencies, grouped into faceless party blocs that go well beyond the big tent in their diversity of interest and ideology. It is not well set up for engaging with its own electorate. Also because of the structure of the EU, it feels like the really important stuff gets dealt with in the Council (or by the Commission), which points back towards the EU being a members’ club rather than a pan-European democratic entity.

        I do not believe it is beyond the wit of man to square this circle, but I’m also not sure it’ll happen any time soon.

  5. For footnote 16, is the different counting whether you include the Marines’ airpower? (Or as I like to call them: the Navy’s Army’s Air Force)

  6. Ken Arrow did a paper decades ago on why health care was an intrinsically failed market. But hey, who here cares about expertise in social science?

  7. It may be useful to unpack the statement “Some US Democrats have openly described the.selves as socialists. Even Marxists.”

    Currently in US politics the word “socialist” is very popular among the groups opposed to the Democratic party, as it scares easily excited people in their base and doesn’t really mean any thing. It’s easy to call anything a Democrat proposes “socialism.” The word “Marxist” is gaining popularity in the last few years for similar usage, and it’s not clear why this should be except that older Americans may remember Marxism was something bad.

    I find it a puzzling trend considering how long ago Marxism died out in reality.

  8. “But I guess it was just an oopsie.”

    I’m pretty sure the Great Leap Forward famine was an “oopsie” from Mao’s POV, not deliberate mass murder, but I think most of us would still take it as a sign of something horribly wrong with his policies.

    So why not the Bengal famine, or Irish famine, too?

  9. I wouldn’t compare ancient regimes to US global hegemony, since the circumstances are so different. Before the modern world, before rapid transportation and instantaneous communication, building a global empire was simply not feasible. Past regimes often did very well with what they had (eg Roman roads, Mongolian relay messengers, the British navy and its coaling stations, etc), but even the industrialized British operated under constraints that don’t apply to us, to say nothing of pre-industrial societies. Thus, greater influence over an absolute quantity of population and real estate in the modern world does not necessarily mean we’re *greater* than the Romans, Persians, or Chinese of the ancient world. To draw an imperfect analogy, it’s like adjusting for inflation.

    With that said, I don’t mean to talk down on American achievements, which are significant indeed. I’m just putting this in the proper context of a game with changing rules.

    1. I agree, one need to work out the ‘adjustment for inflation’ before making comparison. Yes, it is true that United States have a global power projection. But so did Rome at its peak. Rome was master logisticians, moving armies, supplies, along the exceptional engineered Roman roads. If we could compare the movement of Roman armies around the Roman Empire, to United States’ power projection across the air and navies, and adjust it for time, technological difference, then we can compare.

      Rome at its peak also had upper hand in diplomacy, military, trade, economy, cultural and even religion, so you could argue that Rome is equal to United States in hegemony in the known Roman world. United States have a global hegemony in the known world which encapsulate the entire planet plus the Moon, which we can argue is the maximum extent of US projected power. So if we compare Rome extend of projected power to fringe of the empire borders, we would find that Roman is fairly comparable to US in terms of greatest or exceptional.

  10. Just reading through your post on the U.S. not being a nation – and I facepalmed at this bit:

    > people who think ‘European’ is an ethnicity, apparently blissfully unaware that ‘Europe’ is a fairly big place with quite a number of different groups of people

    Ohhh-kay. But plenty of people within America and elsewhere identify as “African”, despite the fact that Africa is far, _far_ more culturally, linguistically and _racially_ diverse than Europe. Or any other continent. And, of course, you get many people identifying as “Asian”, an identity that often nonsensically lumps together Indians with Chinese and Koreans etc.

    You undermine your whole argument with this sort of Isolated Demand For Rigor.

    And this is made worse by the fact that you – rightly – acknowledge that national identity is an imaginary construct.

    And this isn’t a plea for European, much less ‘white’, ethnic identity. It’s merely a plea to knock it off with Isolated Demands for Rigor. You’re better than this.

    1. I’m not sure why you think my demand for rigor is isolated and that I wouldn’t apply the same small categories to non-white Americans?

      US census categories of course would lump together a black American whose ancestors were trafficked to the United States through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, another who immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean in the 1900s and another who came to the United States from Ghana in the last few years. The census would simply list them all as ‘black’ but those Americans will likely have very different experiences of America, very different relationships with its past.

      Likewise the Asian Americans I know tend to be quite particular about exactly which part of Asia they trace their heritage to. And indeed, the experience of an Indian-American is likely to be very different from the experiences of Japanese-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans or Chinese-Americans and so on, so one easily understands the particularity.

      And that’s my point: there are so many different experiences of America in this way that the ‘common history’ of the nation is simply unavailable. Moreover it is easy to underestimate the diversity of the United States if one only looks at the ethnic categories tracked by the US census because those categories are much broader than what any other country would use and so do not reflect the actual granular diversity of the United States very well.

      So the rigor is not isolated. It is a general approach.

    2. > plenty of people within America and elsewhere identify as “African”, despite the fact that Africa is far, _far_ more culturally, linguistically and _racially_ diverse than Europe. Or any other continent. And, of course, you get many people identifying as “Asian”, an identity that often nonsensically lumps together Indians with Chinese and Koreans etc.

      While there are few beliefs so ridiculous that you can’t find someone somewhere who holds them, such people must constitute a vanishingly small fraction of the ethnicities in question (except perhaps in America). I’ve never met anyone in Europe who self-identifies as “Asian” or “African”.

      1. “African-American” makes some sense since AFAIK, the experience of American slavery tended to disrupt or erase details of origin. Captivity, separation from culture, being hauled across the ocean, mixed with slaves from other regions, and all this over centuries. I expect that recent immigrants from Africa have a rather keener sense of what country/tribe/ethnicity they’re from.

        “Asian-American” may be politically useful as a response to generic discrimination against Asians, but I expect that people of recent Japanese/Korean/Chinese/etc descent are not melting together in an “Asian” identity.

    3. Ohhh-kay. But plenty of people within America and elsewhere identify as “African”, despite the fact that Africa is far, _far_ more culturally, linguistically and _racially_ diverse than Europe. Or any other continent. And, of course, you get many people identifying as “Asian”, an identity that often nonsensically lumps together Indians with Chinese and Koreans etc.

      At least it’s better than “people of colour”, which, as far as I can make out, literally only means “not white”.

      1. But, in US terms ‘non-white’ is a significant category, in that ‘whiteness’ is the unmarked category (ie the default assumption). Many of the current political strains trace to challenges to this categorisation.

    4. One notes that arriving in America has interesting effects on people’s nationality and views thereof.

      It’s not only that the contrast sharpens your reactions to what had been like water to a fish back in the old country. It’s also that for the first time, your nationality is an identifying trait. Thus it comes up much more.

      For a small example, Italian-American cooking is a fusion of what were still disparate cuisines, back in the cities that they had emigrated from. Current day Italian cuisine is more unified that it was — but that came later than the Italian-American version.

      1. Nothing uniquely American about that of course. I could write a monograph on the very distinct version of Englishness or Britishness felt by many in the six counties even over a distance of less than a hundred miles. An acquaintance has recently finished a PhD on the Korean identity (and it is to a large extent a single “Korean” identity, in contrast to that of many living on the peninsula itself) of those living in Japan since the colonial period.

    5. >>”Ohhh-kay. But plenty of people within America and elsewhere identify as “African”, despite the fact that Africa is far, _far_ more culturally, linguistically and _racially_ diverse than Europe.”

      So on this note I’m going to gripe about something that bugs me and probably nobody else: the lazy “othering” of Africa in, of all places, Black Panther. We know that Wakanda is located somewhere in central Africa, roughly around Kivu, Uganda, or somewhere in that area, because we’ve, albeit briefly, seen it on a map: it also roughly matches the terrain and fauna. This also makes sense as a location because the country name fits with other peoples in the area: some variation on the “(a)nd(a)” identifier can be seen in the Nande of the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, etc. Wakanda fits there. So far all is good.

      Wakanda has been isolated for centuries so we wouldn’t expect them to have picked up Swahili, the native lingua franca of the region. But we can expect them, especially given the similarity in name, to speak either a language from the same local family, related to Rwanda-Rundi, Luganda, Nande etc. (i.e. Great Lakes Bantu) or a language isolate.

      Instead, they speak Xhosa, a language spoken mostly in South Africa, and not within a thousand miles of Wakanda’s nominal location. The Jabari tribe are given a different language to differentiate them from the dominant Wakandan culture, and speak Igbo, a Nigerian language whose speakers are over a thousand miles in a different direction.

      Xhosa is at least a Bantu language, if not closely related to the Great Lakes languages. Igbo isn’t even Bantoid.

      What makes it doubly frustrating is that in the comics, Wakandans speak Yoruba and Hausa, two other languages from completely the wrong part of Africa. The filmmakers could have used these languages and claimed comic-book canon, but they discarded them (entirely fairly!) only to pick a different pair with similar lack of care.

      It’s clear that they were chosen for how they sound to non-African ears, i.e. exotic, rather than with any sense of authenticity.

      Then we have Wakandan religion. Bast(et) is an inheritance from the comics, but the movie introduced the worship of Hanuman by the Jabari… Hanuman being not even an African god, but an Indian one. This in place of two African deities variously used by the comics (Ngi and Ghekre) who are still from the wrong part of Africa but are at least *African*.

      For comparison, imagine Wakanda were not an isolated African country in the Congo jungle but one in the European Alps. And now imagine that the majority of the people in said country spoke Armenian, with one group that spoke Irish and who worshipped Baal. That is, linguistically, geographically and culturally, roughly the degree by which the linguistics in Black Panther missed the mark. Now imagine how much crap the filmmakers would get for that.

      We have to imagine, because when the filmmakers did Sokovia, an eastern European country which gets much less development than Wakanda did, they gave it a Slavic language (correct!) with evidence of Hungarian cultural influence (entirely plausible!) It is not hard to get this kind of thing right, or at least to get it less wrong than they did with Black Panther.

      For a movie which purports to “do Africa justice” (and was and still is enthused over for doing so by critics) these are lazy, unforced errors which still speak to a cultural complacency and lack of interest or attention to African diversity.

      1. This is quite interesting, because my African colleagues (Ethiopian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Kenyan) were actually raving about how this movie indeed did “Africa justice”. I have not heard any of them (and as you can see where they came from they should have at least noticed the language disconnect), bitch about the language, and/or gods things you mention. Maybe the fact that there finally WAS a movie about an African Super Hero made them watch it with slightly rose-tinted glasses.

  11. The Browser drew my attention to your claim that “no other country’s university system compares” with the USA’s. You cite the 38 US universities in the top 100 against its 4.25% of the world population. But the UK has at least 13 universities in the top 100 and less than a quarter of the US population, which by my calculations leaves the USA a long way behind. A little attention to the facts rather reduces the force of your argument,

    1. The UK university system certainly punches above its weight with its very best schools, but I stand by the assertion that it isn’t a good comparison for the US system because it is so much smaller. To take 2019 (the last pre-COVID year with good data), the UK university system enrolled some 2.5 million students; the US university system just short of 20 million – eight times the students for just 4.7 times the population. The USA also averages around 5.25 times as many graduate students as the UK (3.1m in the USA vs. .59m in the UK). That in turn has a lot to do with the United States having a LOT more professors – ten times as many in fact – as the UK (here, you need to dig into the data:, some 1.58m compared to the UK’s 148k.

      In short, the United Kingdom’s university system is very impressive – obviously world-class – but its over-representation in the top university listing has a lot to do with 1) more smaller universities and 2) more focus on a handful of elite institutions in a smaller overall system. The US university system remains, per capita, much larger and as someone who has looked at funding and hiring on both sides of the Atlantic, also much better funded.

      1. If the US university system is so exceptional, then better funding, more professors, etc., should surely result in *more* top-100 universities per capita, not fewer.

          1. I’ve heard that conversely Americans tend to underestimate Canadian universities, since they have only a few very large elite universities rather than many smaller ones.

  12. As an anationalist (i.e. someone who lacks a national identity, largely because I grew up in over half a dozen countries), national identitism should encounter far more skepticism than it does. Not that everyone needs to go as far as I do and reject it, but national identitism has been a foundational cause for the deaths of tens of millions in the last century alone. That it can result in so many dead bodies and not be questioned boggles my mind.

  13. Sorry if this is addressed in a comment I missed, but I’m reading Graeber/Wengrow “Dawn of Everything” right now (HIGHLY recommended if you haven’t read it — even if only to know their arguments and counter them, if you disagree, although I think they’re quite compelling) and had to come back here to say:

    the Haudenosaunee Confederation probably has a much better claim to being the world’s oldest representative democracy (the founding is believed to have been about 1650 at the latest, 1142 at the earliest, and the structure of the governing body seems to be basically unchanged since). Indeed, the Haudenosaunee themselves claim the title of oldest representative democracy on their Confederation’s official site, and in an essay about the greatness of the state that has crushed them into near-non-state-hood, it would’ve been a nice gesture of respect for their struggles to give them a shout out (though that’s much more the case for the fact checker article you linked than it is for your own post).

    So, I’m just curious: Was that just an oversight or blind spot? Or did you just decide not to get into it for reasons of space (the exactness of the claim to being the oldest democracy is perhaps a bit orthogonal to the exceptionality question, after all)? Or is there a reason you’d have given for excluding their claim? Any reason is fine, I guess; again, not antagonizing, just curious!

    1. Because the question is hideously complex and mostly comes down to a question of definitions: is the Haudenosaunee confederacy now a state (in the technical poli-sci sense of a term), was it *ever* a state (the answer to both of these questions may actually be ‘no’ – it’s not clear the Grand Council ever had a monopoly on the legitimate use of force) and does that matter for the question? Is the Grand Council a national-level organization or was it a supra-national organization for five (and then six) self-governing nations?

      So I threw ‘arguably’ in front of both claims and called it a day.

  14. Essentially you seem to be arguing that the USA is exceptionally large, rich, powerful etc and – a bit of nitpicking over specifics aside – that is not really something any reasonable person can disagree with.

    However, what I think of as the myth of American exceptionalism is not that, but the idea that the USA has become exceptionally large etc as a consequence of some unique property of American people and/or Divine favour, rather than largely through fortunate happenstances like there being an entire continent to take over at a time when murdering people and nicking their countries was less frowned upon.

    (Fortunate for the USA, obviously, not the victims.)

    A fairly obvious parallel is that I’ve read a fair bit by Victorian and Edwardian writers and similarly, what I think is questionable is not their belief that the UK was in a dominant position – obviously true – but the idea that this was an inevitable consequence of some unique property of English people (with perhaps some grudging nods to the Scots and Welsh) and/or Divine favour, rather than fortunate happenstances (etc).

    Hence this seems a curious article because it doesn’t really touch on what I think of as the contentious claim of American exceptionalism at all.

    (Also, I think the mess the UK is currently in has been exacerbated by the lingering remnants of that belief that somehow we are Special and destined for greatness, which seems like a cautionary tale…)

  15. You don’t really say what a “big” country is. Canada is bigger than the U.S. in a geographical sense and is certainly a rich country in a GDP per capita sense, making it the biggest rich country in the world, even though its population is much smaller than the U.S.’s.

  16. The whole article depends on comparing the incomparable to make its points. The US is a hegemonic power, same as many were before and many will be since, and thus it should be compared to the other hegemonic powers throughout history to show whether it is in any way exceptional.
    The argument that it’s exceptional for the reach of its hegemony is particularly strange: yes, the world is more connected than ever, but this globalization is a natural result of technological development, and not something that the US built. The power of historical hegemonies reached much further from their heartlands by any measure: the fastest available method of information relay took many times longer to reach the furthest borders of Rome or Tang China than it does for the US; it took many times longer for these historic hegemonies to move their military forces from their heartlands to the furthest contested reaches (again, mind, not because they were worse organized, but because infantry and cavalry are redeployed much slower on foot than by strategic lift aircraft).

    Similarly, the differences in population densities, prosperity levels and economic productiveness were much higher for, say, Imperial China and its competitors than for the US and its competitors, the increase in absolute numbers explained by humanity’s growing tech level, as relative levels between different hegemonic and non-hegemonic but capable nations have homogenized rather than diverted.
    As long as those are countries compared (rather than city-states), it matters little already whether a country has ten million or three hundred million citizens, because both are large by historic estimation, and a larger population is not a detriment to economic growth (as China’s rise showcases). The US, then, is not exceptional even among the modern-day polities. Comparing to historical hegemonies can be trickier in what comes to the precise difference in per capita economic productivity, but what can be compared is the share of the world’s production. Again, here the US is unexceptional compared to, say, early modern China (and wasn’t even after WWII, when it accounted for a much larger part of the planet’s GDP than now).
    On a side note, purchasing power parity in GDP calculation was introduced precisely to better represent the raw amounts of goods and services (which, btw, weren’t mentioned in the article, despite accounting for the majority of the GDP numbers in the modern developed nations) produced by different nations. Without PPP, a metal frame and drywall house built in Florida and a metal frame and drywall house built in Lagos contribute vastly different sums to the nominal GDP numbers, even if they are themselves exactly the same. The same applies to services: say, a haircut costs an order of magnitude differently in different countries, and without PPP it contributes vastly different sums to the nominal GDP metric despite being exactly the same service rendered.
    With PPP, then, the US today is not exceptional in what comes to the size of economy even compared to its modern competitors – China has long been the world’s largest producer.

    The same logic of comparing the comparable can be applied to tech. Going with a historic example, China and Byzantium enjoyed qualitative superiority over the other powers of their time: they could produce silk (and in Eastern Roman Empire’s case, Greek fire), while the others could not. The same applies to European dominance in firearms and logistics when the great European empires were being built, to Arabian caliphate superiority in steel production, Chinese superiority in porcelain, etcetera. Compared to that, American tech superiority is quantitative even where it is at all present: Boeing jets are not any better than Airbus, Sukhoi or Comac; Google search engine is not any better than Yandex or Baidu; the US interplanetary probes are the best, but in space station construction it had to call on Russia’s tech; its cheque-based day-to-day finance is absolutely outdated compared to countries with modern fintech like China; Moderna vaccine is not significantly better than Sputnik V or Sinopharm BIBP, etc. The only real claim to vastly outpacing the rest of humanity would be electronic hardware, but even there, Asian manufacturers are no less capable of producing cellphones, communications equipment, not to mention gaming consoles or cameras. A symptom of losing tech superiority is, of course, the need to protect the domestic market from superior foreign competitors like Huawei, Kaspersky or ZTE through purely administrative measures.
    Just the same with education: sure, in the American ratings, the American universities take up the top spots (and the bias of said ratings is banal to show minding that, say, the Soviet system had universities as mostly educational institutions, while science was done in the Academy of Sciences). But is the difference in education more significant than what the Athenian Empire or the Umayyad Caliphate had with their contemporaries?

    Again, the same with culture. It is possible to cherrypick the ways it is unique, but is it overall different from how the other hegemonic countries dominated their regions? Is the use of English today any more prevalent than the use of Latin was around (and after) the Roman Empire, given the difference in communication technologies? Is the prevalence of American cinema any more significant than the prevalence of Roman writing, or Greek tragedy or sculpture? There’s nothing that’d indicate that much.

    And once again, just the same with power. The US leads an alliance of junior partners in the area it dominates: different in no way from Rome, or Persian Empire, or what have you, who all too had “tremendous amounts of institutional power” in their spheres of influence. Those partners consider it more beneficial to use the benefits provided by the organizations headed by the hegemonic power – same as the communist nations did with the Soviet Union, as the African nations do with modern-day China, and as tributary states did with historic China. An age-old process working just the same for the US as for any other hegemon, with greater geographic extent due to technological development, which the US cannot claim to be its own achievement.
    At the same time, just as China is unable to grab Taiwan a hundred kilometers from the shore, so is the US unable to grab Cuba, despite multiple attempts to do so both overt and covert. On the other side, it’s rather harder to imagine Queen Victoria wiggling her hands about “Daoguang price hikes”, or the Rashidun refusing to accept a repayment of foreign debt from the world’s six economy, trying instead to proclaim its “””default”””. Likewise, the United States has spent the last fifteen years demonstrating with some vividness just how little influence it exerts inside its sphere of dominance even over minor powers such as Iran or North Korea, which any previously dominant hegemonic empire would’ve rapidly seen reduced to utter economic ruin and mass starvation, if not simply wiped off the map – without dispatching aircraft carriers to their borders only to sink a couple aircraft in the sea and turn home (as happened to North Korea in 2017), or their navy servicemen kneeling for the world to see as they are arrested inside said power’s waters (as happened in the Persian Gulf in 2016), or allowing said minor powers to strike their military bases abroad with long-ranged weaponry with impunity (as during the 2020 operation Martyr Soleimani).

    The result of all this is the typical situation of a hegemonic power in protracted decline, one that has occurred numerous times throughout history, exceptional only for the scale allowed by humanity’s technological development that had little to do with the hegemonic power in question itself.

  17. Long-time reader, first-time poster. I apologize for being late to the party, but I’ve been chugging steadily through your work here, and I’ve finally reached this article. I’m having some trouble with it.

    By nature and profession, you’re an academic. So when you see a statement like “The U.S. is exceptional”, your instinct is to subject it to quantifiable analysis. GDPs, and tallies of aircraft carriers, and white papers by think-tanks like Freedom House, and so on. But you’re aspiring to also be a public communicator. As such, you are of course aware that we live in the Age of the Dog-Whistle. You know that when talking heads on the TV say “the U.S. is exceptional”, they’re making a three-part statement:

    1. The U.S. is, in fact, “the best country”.
    2. The U.S. should dictate global affairs — even to the point of which foreign governments are allowed to exist — while itself remaining unencumbered by any international laws, standards, Geneva Conventions, etc.
    3. The U.S. (and this is especially relevant to your vocation) cannot learn anything from other nations, cultures, or historical periods, because we are so very “exceptional”.

    When people talk about American Exceptionalism, what they mean is just Manifest Destiny. One could make a case for “reclaiming” the meaning of American Exceptionalism…but the time to do that was in the mid-1600s, when John Winthrop gave his “city on a hill” speech. The battle was certainly over by the time Ronald Reagan was giving his “city on a hill” speeches, three-and-a-half centuries later. Some phrases and symbols simply cannot be “reclaimed”. After all, when you see somebody waving a swastika flag and ranting about “the Aryans”, you don’t assume they’re part of the Mohenjo-Daro Reenactors Club.

    And if even a nobody like me knows this, then someone in your position has to have realized it years ago. So the trouble I’m having with this article is…I can’t tell what it is that you’re trying to do, here.

    1. I read this as something like Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s rants – factually correct statements that miss the context of what is actually being discussed because they are being treated too academically.

    2. I completely agree with this. The article is accurate in spirit on its technicalities, even if some of the details are debatable. (People elsewhere in the comments have brought up technical points about the US’ place in the history of democracy and the heights of its education system.) The US is “exceptional” in these ways. But it fails to contend with what people saying “America is the greatest” actually mean in colloquial discussion or political discourse.

      But I’d take it a step further. It largely fails to recognize what people saying “America is not exceptional” mean either. No one talking about that cares what the US median income is relative to other countries in terms of a dollar amount that’s largely defined by the relative economic dominance of the US government and economic juggernauts to the rest of the world. They care about what ordinary life looks like for American people. The economic questions being used to chip at the presumption of US exceptionalism are things like:

      How many people live in food deserts? How many people work hours which don’t leave time for leisure or childcare? How many people could tolerate a relatively minor financial shock without falling into debt? How vulnerable are people to uncontrollable events (like health events, accidents, etc)? How do people qualify their happiness with their work? How many people feel like they have a choice in where they work? How many protections to people have against abusive labor conditions?

      None of which have anything to do with median income as a dollar value. To assert that is like trying to compare wages in San Francisco, California and Tucson, Arizona without considering the relative costs of living. A wealthy person in Tucson could literally become homeless in San Francisco with the same dollar value income. And relative to countries with similar levels of technology and development, America lags on these questions.

      When it comes to knowledge, no one saying “America is not exceptional” is talking about the quality of our highest learning institutions. As an example: My mother got a PhD at one of the more prestigious universities in the US. One day, while visiting for winter holidays, she overheard a lecture series I was listening to about the US Civil War. Specifically the part where the professor went over how almost ever state involved specifically cited slavery as a primary reason for secession. My mother had *no idea*. She was stunned. Her entire childhood being educated in Arizona she’d been taught that the removal of slavery was a Northern economic punishment to prevent further Southern rebellion and that its involvement in the war fully ended there. She’d thought the cause for the war was … well now that she was confronted with it, her schools never did say much about that.

      Criticisms that the US is not exceptional in terms of education have nothing to do with the heights of our research institutions. They have to do with things like the basic lack of historical literacy of our population at large. The fact that someone with a PhD in social sciences could have a hole so large in her basic education. They have to do with underfunded schools, overcrowded classrooms, flagging math standards, unscientific biology courses, anemic sexual education, and poor students starving at lunchtime.

      The high per capita quantity of people performing topological geometry research is neat, sure. But frankly these criticisms are more concerned with how many Americans can’t do basic budgetary math and how engineering schools are struggling to find enough applicants with sufficient pre-calculus groundings to finish a civil engineering degree in four years.

      To put this in historical terms-

      If you have a mob of angry Romans screaming “Rome is not great!”, you can assume they have seen the marvels of engineering that are the coliseum and the aqueducts, and that their complaints might have more to do with bread shortages.

      1. “Food desert” is measured by people who have a desire to find them everywhere. And do. Generally by insisting that the poor shop as the same kinds of stores as the middle class.

  18. I think you’ve missed the mark on this one. Not that you are technically incorrect in any manner, but because “is america the greatest” is not, as you say, a question about bigness, but about quality. When people claim that america is “the greatest” or special or exceptional, they claim they are making is not, or at least not just, “america has a bigger economy than other countries” but “America is better than other countries.” “Greatness” is, contrary to your claim, a value judgement. While your arguments are correct, and the point you make is worthwhile, there’s an equivocation in your framing. Great does both mean big and good, and it’s the good part that’s under contention. When people argue that america isn’t the greatest country in the world, “Greatest” there is in the sense of good; arguing back that actually it is the biggest in a variety of ways doesn’t adress the point made.

  19. While I typically love your work (with the understanding that you differ in opinion) this post is the greatest sin you have committed.


    Because you subscribe to a viewpoint which accepts tradeoffs *without cause or elaboration* when the very power you are extoling makes them pointless.

    Further, you extol terms such as individuality without any defining of what individuality *means*. In practice, “individuality” as defined in that metric is an *American buzzword*, verging on state sponsored *propaganda*, verging on propaganda sponsored by the *Fascist and Totalitarian movements without our state*. If one tries to define what makes the average American more individualist than, say, the average Swede, you end up coming up with exactly nothing; everything is horoscope level platitudes. The index used to assign such values verges somewhere between pseudoscience and simple nonsense.

    Given the *tremendous* sectarianism of the current American political system, it should be absolutely trivial to reject any concept that Americans are “Individualist”. The country is currently on a collision course for 1930’s Germany, not as some vague threat, but as a very real culmination of events where Democratic norms are eroded and power is concentrated in uneven ways behind demagogues. This does not happen in a *free thinking* country where people reject authorities-it is sheer blindness to propose that the people who tried to overthrow the government on January 6th are *individualist*, and they are one of the dominant political forces in the United States.

    Further the inequality you identify is also blindness-America has incredibly prosperity but also incredibly strong systems in place to segregate that prosperity, primarily from black immigrants, but increasingly from the political rivals of the ruling elites. From a historical perspective America is increasingly resembling an capitalist aristocracy, with an oligarchical government. Capital is hoarded by individuals who can use their position and control to create debt traps and capital squeezes on competition, leading to increasing inequality in an accelerating way. It’s very similar to your explanation of how the landed aristocracy screwed over subsistence farmers with agricultural capital, but with *generic* capital. You can’t seriously ignore that the 1% is gaining an *accelerating* percentage of American wealth every generation, nor that there is a massive quantity of money influencing democratic norms and perverting them.

    All of this comes down to the political desolation at the core of American values, which is, surprise, rooted in precisely the exceptionalism rhetoric you reproduce. American political degeneration is driven by religious extremism and individualist propaganda-“We aren’t anti-freedom, we are ‘pro first-amendment’, which is why we want to jail everyone who disagrees with us.” The entire conservative movement in the united states is fundamentally based on a lie you are propagating, one which relies on acceptance, at face value, of “individualism” and “religiosity” as good things, even while they drive rampant inequality and degenerate politics.

    The end result is that while America is absolutely the greatest world power with the largest economy and most industrial might since, well, ever, it is primed for a massive and catastrophic fall that threatens to collapse the entire global economy and lead to untold and unimaginable suffering, precisely like Rome did in the 3rd/4th century, because of the very factors you brush aside or *posit as positives*.

  20. As someone who worked in (and talked with a lot of other people like that) quite a few US tech companies in Europe, there is a pretty common trend to be seen – an US guy comes with a lot of money, buys something, and labels it with a US sticker. What follows then depends a lot on what they do with those acquisitions – sometimes, they just pour more investment into them and they tend to prosper, sometimes they forcibly convert them to be more “American” and tend to lose the reason they were attractive to both employees and customers. Often enough, it is a mix of both, and there’s plenty of other options, of course. But at the same time, there is still the effect that pouring a lot of money into the acquisition can increase the value or the perception of the value of the US “parent”. It’s the same positive feedback loop you tend to get with “the guys with the money” – and indeed, when you look at the richest people in the US, they tend to reinforce this view rather than challenging it.

    Of course, one cannot really overlook the massive advantage the US gained in and after the Second World War – though it’s also pretty clear that the trajectory was there even without the war, the war just made the US jump a few decades ahead, relatively speaking.

    I think Rome is still an interesting comparison to the US, though you certainly need to be mindful of a lot of differences. The amount of influence the US can exert without overt violence is astounding, and a product of a massive liberalization of trade and the movement of people and capital.

  21. This argument really thrives on apples to oranges comparisons. Aside from some dubious definitions (“big country”) and fudged facts (oldest democracy), you’re largely just pointing out the things that the US specializes in without recognizing that just about every country has statistics that make it unusual.

    GDP is the most salient example here. GDP is far from the only measure of economic strength or health and it has been rightly argued as a quite poor marker of those things (even by its originator). The US has invested in increasing GDP to the exclusion of other markers perhaps more than any other country in the world today so it’s not surprising that is has a high one; countries tend to perform well on their own metrics of success. It’s the same argument the Guinness World Record holder for longest time holding their breath while standing on one foot would use about exceptionalism.

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