The opiates of the (American) masses

Religion, Marx famously observed, is “the opiate of the masses”. And Americans are pretty heavy users: at any rate they seem to have religion the way dogs have fleas. But, as Scott Shane points out in a terrific piece, they are also addicted to another opiate — exceptionalism, the notion that the US is, somehow, better than anywhere else on the planet.

Imagine, he writes, “a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States trails its economic peers”.

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the U.S. ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the U.S. trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Answer: Nowhere.

Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.

Candidates and presidents generally oblige them, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney included. It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems — but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence: Unemployment is too high, so I will create millions of jobs. It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the U.S. leads the world.

And that, my friends, explain why US Presidential elections seem so puerile to the rest of us. Or at any rate to those of us who think that the US is really just another country, with some good points and an awful lot of lunatic downsides.

Thanks to Jon Crowcroft for the link to the chart.