This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It was originally posted on The Conversation.
The United States may consider itself a “leader of the free world”, but a development index released in July 2022 puts the country much further down the list.
In its global rankings, the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development dropped the United States to 41st in the world, down from its previous ranking of 32nd. According to this methodology — an expansive model of 17 categories, or “goals,” many of which focus on the environment and equity — the United States ranks between Cuba and Bulgaria. Both are widely considered developing countries.
The United States is also now considered a “flawed democracy,” according to The Economist’s Democracy Index.
As a political historian who studies the institutional development of the United States, I recognize these dismal ratings as the inevitable result of two problems. Racism has deprived many Americans of the health care, education, economic security and environment they deserve. At the same time, as threats to democracy grow more serious, a devotion to “American exceptionalism” prevents the country from candidly assessing and correcting its course.
“The Other America”
The Office of Sustainable Development rankings differ from more traditional development measures in that they focus more on the experiences of ordinary people, including their ability to enjoy clean air and water, than on the wealth creation.
So if the gigantic size of the US economy matters in its score, so does the unequal access to the wealth it produces. Judging by accepted measures like the Gini coefficient, income inequality in the United States has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. According to measures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has the largest wealth gap among the G-7 countries.
These results reflect structural disparities in the United States, which are more pronounced for African Americans. Such differences persisted long after the demise of chattel slavery and the repeal of Jim Crow laws.
Researcher W.E.B. Du Bois first exposed this kind of structural inequality in his 1899 analysis of black life in the urban north, “The Philadelphia Negro.” Although he noted distinctions of wealth and status within black society, Du Bois found African American life to be a world apart from white residents: a “city within a city.” Du Bois attributed the high rates of poverty, crime, and illiteracy prevalent in Philadelphia’s black community to discrimination, disinvestment, and residential segregation—not to the degree of ambition or talent of black people.
More than half a century later, with characteristic eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr. also denounced the persistence of “the other America”, one where “the dynamism of hope” has transformed into “the fatigue of despair”.
To illustrate his point, King referred to many of the same factors studied by Du Bois: housing status and household wealth, education, social mobility and literacy rates, health and employment. On all of these measures, black Americans fared less well than whites. But as King noted, “A lot of people from various backgrounds live in this other America.”
The benchmarks of development invoked by these men were also featured prominently in the 1962 book “The Other America,” by political scientist Michael Harrington, founder of a group that eventually became the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington’s work so unsettled President John F. Kennedy that it reportedly prompted him to formulate a “war on poverty.”
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, waged this metaphorical war. But poverty linked to discreet places. Rural areas and segregated neighborhoods remained impoverished well beyond federal efforts in the mid-twentieth century.
That’s largely because federal efforts during this critical time welcomed rather than confronted the forces of racism, my research found.
In a number of policy areas, the sustained efforts of segregationist Democrats in Congress have resulted in an incomplete and disparate system of social policy. Southern Democrats have cooperated with Republicans to doom efforts to achieve universal health care or a unionized workforce. Rejecting proposals for strong federal intervention, they left a checkered legacy of local funding for education and public health.
Now, many years later, the effects of a racially-friendly welfare state are evident – though perhaps less visibly – in inadequate health policies resulting in a shocking decline in average life expectancy in United States.
Decline of democracy
There are other ways to measure a country’s level of development, and for some of them, the United States fares better.
The United States currently ranks 21st on the United Nations Development Program Index, which measures fewer factors than the Sustainable Development Index. Good results in terms of average income per person – $64,765 – and an average of 13.7 years of schooling place the United States squarely in the developed world.
However, its ranking suffers from assessments that give more weight to political systems.
The Economist’s Democracy Index now ranks the United States among “imperfect democracies”, with an overall score that falls between Estonia and Chile. It is not a top-notch “full democracy”, largely because of a fractured political culture. This growing divide is most apparent in the divergent paths between the “red” and “blue” states.
Although The Economist analysts applaud the peaceful transfer of power in the face of an insurgency designed to disrupt it, their report laments that, according to a January 2022 poll, “only 55% of Americans believe that Mr. Biden legitimately won the election 2020”. elections, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Election denial carries the threat that election officials in Republican-controlled jurisdictions will reject or alter vote counts that do not favor the Republican Party in the next election, further damaging the United States’ score on the Democracy Index.
Red and Blue America also differ on access to modern reproductive care for women. This hurts the US gender equality ranking, one aspect of the United Nations Sustainable Development Index.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican-controlled states have enacted or proposed abortion laws that are extremely restrictive, to the point of endangering a woman’s health.
I believe that, when coupled with structural inequality and fractured social politics, the waning Republican commitment to democracy lends weight to the classification of the United States as a developing country.
Addressing the poor performance of the United States in various global surveys also requires dealing with the idea of American exceptionalism, a belief in American superiority over the rest of the world.
Both political parties have long promoted this belief, at home and abroad, but “exceptionalism” is getting more formal treatment from Republicans. It was the front line of the Republican Party’s national platform of 2016 and 2020 (“we believe in American exceptionalism”). And it served as the organizing principle behind Donald Trump’s vow to restore “patriotic education” in American schools.
In Florida, after lobbying by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state board of education in July 2022 approved standards rooted in American exceptionalism while banning the teaching of critical race theory, a academic framework teaching the kind of structural racism that Du Bois exposed long ago.
With a tendency to proclaim excellence rather than pursue it, the peddling of American exceptionalism encourages Americans to maintain a strong sense of national accomplishment – despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Kathleen Fridl is a Sachs Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.
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