To Make America Great Again, We Need to Leave the Country

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No politician will admit that the United States is no longer number one. But other nations do a lot of things better -- and we need to learn from them.  

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Foreign observers used to chuckle at that very distinctly American political rhetoric of exceptionalism -- the assertions of our God-granted preeminence and predestination. But beneath that laughter, there was usually grudging respect, and even envy for a country whose citizens were so ready to express such national pride.

Now such language it is often openly derided. Let's face it, even with all the problems in Europe, and everywhere, the American lantern is not as brightly inviting as it used to be. And I don't mean just literally inviting, as in inviting to immigrants -- though that in itself is a huge problem, one that contributes to the general perception of a country closing itself inward.

When Americans travel abroad, they are often surprised at how well other countries do the things we used to think America does best. In fact, one reason so many American businesses still lead the world is because they benchmark the competition and emulate best practices. But suggest to an American politician that we should try to learn from other countries, and he will look at you like you are from Mars. It is somehow unpatriotic even to raise such comparisons.

Imagine if a politician were to say, "France has a better health care system than we do." I can almost guarantee that politician would suffer electoral defeat -- even though the statement, in most objective respects, is true. The U.S. is, for too many, the only country that matters; experiences anywhere else are irrelevant. Remember, we have many members of Congress who boast they have no passport.

At a time when many trend lines in the U.S. point to relative decline in this regard, one actually brings hope: More and more young Americans go abroad for some of their education. Last year, about a quarter million studied in another country; a decade ago, the number was about half that. Value will come not just from greater global consciousness, but from the direct experience that many nations simply do many things far better than we do.

New statistical evidence of this appears almost weekly. When it comes to student performance in mathematics, we are now 25th among the 34 advanced economies, and behind many developing countries as well. In college attendance, our previous preeminence has long faded; we are now 9th in percentage of younger workers with two-year or four-year degrees, and 12th in college graduation rate. In health, we are 37th in infant mortality and equally low in life expectancy. In environmental performance, we are 61st. In the percentage of people below the poverty line, we are 21st. Even when it comes to the "pursuit of happiness," enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as one of the noble goals of government, our citizens are only the 15th most satisfied with their lives.

But many of our political leaders, rather than asking what we can learn from the countries that have surpassed us in various ways, choose instead to win applause with unqualified boasts of our inherent greatness. They imply that the answers to our problems are to be found not just by closing our borders to immigrants but to foreign ideas as well.

The countries that are making great strides follow quite a different path. Some of them are autocracies. Their leaders want to know which countries do the best job teaching elementary education or high school science, and how; which countries best prepare their people for tomorrow's jobs, and how; which countries best protect consumers while maintaining business vitality, and how; which countries best reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, and how. They benchmark against the leaders--just like the strongest American businesses do.

Sadly, and shockingly given where the U.S. used to stand in most rankings, few of the best practices foreign leaders want to emulate are any longer in the U.S.

Young Americans who see this country from different shores can't help but conclude that something is awry in a political culture that denies what they plainly see elsewhere: health care systems that provide better outcomes at lower cost and for everyone; better airports, faster trains, more extensive urban public transportation--and even, amazingly, better highways; more upward mobility (yes, the American dream is now more real in many other countries than it is here); more sustainable energy policies; elections that work more quickly and inexpensively, with more rational discourse and greater citizen participation. The list is long.

These young Americans usually return with an openness about the world that many of their parents lack. No less patriotic than when they left, they see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger country. They were taught, as we were all taught, that the U.S. was built to greatness on ideas borrowed by the rest of the world and improved here. That is what we must do again.

Consider some of the things that have fueled that American lantern of attraction for more than two centuries. Perhaps more than anything else, it has been the American Dream: the universal desire of all parents that their children will lead lives better than their own. This dream was given an American name, and not just in American dictionaries. But that dream is dying. And it can't be resuscitated if talented people sit on the political sidelines or don't attend the game at all.

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 17 percent of Americans believe our national government possesses the consent of the governed. These numbers may not seem shocking, because they've been low for so long. But not always. In 1964, Pew found 77 percent of Americans expected their government to do "the right thing" most of the time.

So the American people think our democracy doesn't work. But there are also many objective signs that it's failing. One is that Americans don't vote as much as citizens of most other countries, including developing countries. In 2010, only 37.5 percent voted in Congressional elections. There are signs that young people are voting less than they used to. Why? As Rock the Vote found in a 2010 poll, it is very simple: Because they think it doesn't matter who wins, that no real change is possible. They think the power of special interests is simply too great. And they are right.

One of the strongest indications of American democratic dysfunction is pervasive and expanding poverty. It is not just its existence in the richest country on earth that is shameful, but its utter absence from political discourse. Most of the poor don't vote; they have largely given up hope. And what national politician talks about poverty? Can you name any?

America is moving toward the kind of bifurcated society we used to deride in banana republics--rich getting richer in gated communities, while the poor grow poorer, barely seen in segregated urban ghettos and hidden rural decay. Over 20 million Americans live in extreme poverty. One in 50 Americans' only income is food stamps. Add the poor and the near-poor--that is under $44K for a family of four--and you have more than 100 million people.

The richest country in the world now has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world. The U.S. has gone from being relatively egalitarian to one of the most unequal countries in the world.

And mobility from the poor to the middle class is not as open to anyone of talent and ambition as it once was; demographers and sociologists all agree on this. Americans now have less upward mobility--and those born privileged have less downward mobility--than in many of the formerly aristocratic countries our ancestors fled from.

These are just a few signs that American government is broken. So why is it so broken? Let's consider the matter of money. When I left for Oxford in 1974, the total spent by all candidates for Congress, House and Senate, was $77 million. In 2010, it was $1.8 billion. Members of Congress spend up to 70 percent of their time raising money; that is their job; they become fundraisers far more than they are legislators. In that same year, 3 percent of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists. Now it's 50 percent of Senators, 42 percent of House members. Critics from the left and right and middle alike call our political finance system one of "legalized bribery."

Add to the mix the effect of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, and the spread of unaccountable super PACs and anonymous donors, and it can be no surprise that public cynicism is at an all-time high. Newt Gingrich's campaign was kept alive long after the people declared it dead by one billionaire gambling magnate. In any close election today, a single individual, a lone crackpot even, can spend enough to defeat someone. And worse, they do this mainly with negative ads. Negative ads work--and they also turn off moderates and independents, further eroding confidence in government.

The media also are complicit in the dysfunction. Not only has the kind of responsible journalism that once characterized much of the American press not yet found a new and a sustainable model of profitability, but political dysfunction is profitable for the irresponsible press -- the shock jocks and the vitriol slingers. Yes, the Internet, and blogs, can be wonderful alternatives, but they also facilitate prefiltered news and can spread outrageous falsehoods.

Our Constitution also contributes to the problems. The U.S. Constitution was one of the great political accomplishments of all time. But that doesn't mean all parts of it--especially the comprises dictated by parochial 18th century concerns--remain great provisions for all time. Our checks and balances, our separation of powers, our federal/state divisions -- all these contribute to the sclerotic gridlock that characteristics U.S. government today. Nothing important can get done.

We don't even discuss aspects of our governance that appear glaringly undemocratic from foreign shores. Just one major example: California's 37 million people have the same representation as Wyoming's 560,000. That particular problem is only going to get worse given U.S. demographic trends; the Senate could end up as democratically unrepresentative as was Britain's House of Lords before reform.

Add to the list that our presidents are elected by the electoral college and not popular vote. A result of that is that the presidential campaigns are seriously fought in a minority of the states. This is all crazy. This combination of our constitutional scheme and the role of money make action on most critical issues so difficult. Rich private interests have many ways to block change. This is why health care reform was so modest in the first place; that is why there was no public option; that is why climate change legislation is now near impossible; that is why the U.S. is alone in the world in its inability to regulate guns; that is why basic financial reform can't be enacted.

Enough -- my point is not to depress. It is to express my my hope that as young Americans study and live away from their home countries, they will give serious attention to what they see around them and engage politically when they get home. I am not suggesting that all of them should run for office or to choose work in the public sector. But I am urging them to get as deeply involved as they can.

For those who do go into politics, I hope they will go with their eyes open and their values firm. For American politics today is ugly. There is too much preening to the rich--and often to the ignorant, narrow-minded, and prejudiced--while there are few rewards for dedication to the dispossessed. Public governance needs extraordinary talent, reach, ambition, and problem-solving skills.

Much of the work the next generation faces will be frustrating. But if they stick to it, the personal satisfaction they gain -- and the lantern of democracy they help to reignite -- will surely compensate for the pain and slog of getting there.


Adapted from a keynote address at the Global Scholars Symposium at Oxford in May. (The full text can be found here.)

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Elliot Gerson is an executive vice president at the Aspen Institute, where he oversees its Policy and its Public Programs, including the Aspen Economic Opportunities Program, which focuses on low-wage Americans.

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