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.

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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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