When I think of my country these days, I often think of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s novel about a handsome young man who makes a deal with the Devil. The deal guarantees that as Dorian Gray ages, his youthful good looks will remain unchanged and a portrait that has been painted of him will age instead. This being a Faustian bargain, the portrait reflects Dorian’s soul, and as he becomes more and more dissolute, his portrait, which he hides in a closet, becomes increasingly hideous. As you might guess, things don’t end well for Dorian Gray.
The United States has always thought of itself as “America the Beautiful, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave,” as a “shining city on a hill,” an image embellished with particular flourish by President Ronald Reagan, who said in his Farewell address that he thought of America as
“… a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Now, we allow a little “artistic license” for American presidents talking about America; we expect our presidents to describe America in a positive – even glowing – light, and our presidents have obliged. We like to hear good things about our country – about our people, about our economic system, and about our system of government. We think of ourselves as a free and strong people with free market capitalism where there is both economic and social mobility; we think of America as a land of opportunity where those who work hard and take initiative can rise, with a democratic system in which all voices can be heard and all are equal before the law.
Similarly, the term “American exceptionalism” expresses the idea that the United States is the exception among nations with a “uniquely American ideology … based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, populism, and laissez-faire.”
It sounds too good to be true (and, spoiler alert: it isn’t entirely true). But this image of the United States is by no means fashioned out of thin air. America has traditionally been more egalitarian than most societies, with a great emphasis on the rights and potential of the individual. We are a nation formed on the basis of democratic and republican ideals rather than a particular ethnicity or religion, with our freedoms and rights guaranteed. In the latter half of the twentieth century in particular, America was a beacon of egalitarianism, of social and economic mobility, of educational access and quality, and of freedoms written into law – and all of this made us the envy of the world. We were that handsome young man whom all admired.
Sort of. Actually, if you were African American in the twentieth century in America (to say nothing of earlier), you might not have seen things this way. If America was a “handsome young man” with social and economic mobility and guaranteed rights, with access to quality education and freedoms that were the envy of the world, it was a handsome young white man. Of course, to many Americans – many white Americans – that’s just a detail that muddies the larger, more beatific picture. And back when whites were numerically the overwhelming majority in this country, there was at least a statistical case to be made for the “prettier” picture – as though if you squinted you couldn’t quite see the non-whites.
There is a strong tendency, particularly on the political right, to glory in this image of America as a beacon among nations, as exceptional – and I think that, especially in the second part of the twentieth century, after World War II up through the early 1980s, despite our “warts” as a country, we indeed had much to be proud of. As noted above, we were more egalitarian than most countries; we had greater social and economic mobility and more economic opportunity, and, as a result, we had a large and vibrant middle class. I was born into that middle class, and I very much benefited from the kind of country America was then. I went to a large public high school, worked hard and got a full tuition scholarship to a good university; after that I went on to graduate school, and, having gotten virtually no financial help from my parents, emerged with both undergraduate and graduate degrees and only a very minimal student debt, which I easily paid off.
Some Americans, mostly on the political right, say we are still the way we were in the mid-twentieth century, as if, like Dorian Gray, we never age. They talk with absolute reverence about the “free market” that is the basis of our economic system (if only the government would keep its hands off); they wax poetic about all of our freedoms and about our sturdy democracy. They say we have the best schools and the best healthcare in the world; we are a land of opportunity for anyone with grit and determination. That’s why everyone wants to come here. Anyone who questions this rosy picture, suggesting that perhaps we’re not so exceptional after all, is considered, well, un-American.
In response to a journalist’s question in 2009 about “American exceptionalism,” President Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That sounded quite gracious to me, but the president was immediately attacked by the right. “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation,” responded Republican Mike Huckabee. It wasn’t enough to say that, like other countries, we feel we are exceptional. To prove his American bona fides, perhaps president Obama should have said we are exceptionally exceptional.
Towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, however, the evidence has increasingly belied the shining image. Income inequality in the U.S. has soared to levels not seen since the Gilded Age and has outstripped levels in most other countries. In addition – and relatedly – the United States now has less economic mobility than other advanced Western countries.
Among the many consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor in America, the rich can now expect to live about five years longer than the poor, and that gap in life expectancy has been widening, rather than narrowing, over recent decades.
There are probably numerous reasons why rich people tend to live longer than poor people, but surely one of the more important reasons is differential access to healthcare. In 2012, about a quarter of households earning less that $25,000 had no health insurance, while only about 8 percent of households earning at least $75,000 were uninsured. Looking at life expectancy from another angle, researchers compared Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL), due to problems in each of several broad categories (e.g., “respiratory system”), in the United States to YPLL in other rich countries; the U.S. did worse in every category.
The healthcare system in the United States has rightly (and repeatedly) been described as “broken.” In a ranking of its 191 member states in 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th in healthcare (but number 1 in spending on healthcare per capita). And up until the (very recent) implementation of the Affordable Care Act, healthcare in the United States was only getting worse. One medical crisis could easily bankrupt a person. And, like income inequality, medically related personal bankruptcies had been increasing for decades.
Education is the other big factor to look at when considering the sagging egalitarianism in the United States. The cost of higher education has been rising for the last quarter of a century and more (at annual rates well above annual rates of inflation), and as a result access to quality higher education is now much more restricted than it was when I went to college (in the late sixties); it is simply unaffordable for many lower class kids and barely affordable for many middle class kids. As with economic mobility and healthcare, the United States now ranks poorly in access to education compared to other advanced industrialized countries. Because higher education now costs so much, student debt in America has skyrocketed and is now over $1 trillion in aggregate. The average student loan balance in the first quarter of 2012 was over $24,000. An entire generation will be saddled with enough debt to make it much harder to do the things young adults starting out typically want to do – start a family, buy a house, or go for a job that satisfies (rather than pays enough to pay off the crushing student loan).
But at least we still have egalitarianism when it comes to our democracy, right? It’s still one-person-one-vote. Well, yes; but if “money talks,” some people’s “voices” in political campaigns are orders of magnitude louder than others. I suspect most Americans are by now aware of the extremely rich few (e.g., the Koch brothers and other major corporate donors) who have had an outsize “say” in our elections through their outsize campaign contributions. A large amount of money spent on a political campaign does not guarantee a candidate’s success (see: Romney, 2012 presidential election); however, it increases his chances. This means that rich people and corporations potentially have a greater influence on elections than ordinary Americans. And recent Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, in particular – have opened the floodgates ever wider.
And all that money influences more than just election outcomes; it influences what our elected officials do once in office – because as money becomes ever more important in politics, politicians worry more and more about keeping their “donors” happy. As John Sarbanes (D-DM) candidly put it, “I’m not talking about quid pro quos. I am talking about human nature. When you need to raise a lot of money, part of you is always thinking, ‘What would my patron think?’ ”
The conservative justices on the Supreme Court seem unable to imagine how allowing almost unlimited money in politics might lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption. The liberal justices, and many lawyers and law professors have had no such failure of imagination. What they have a hard time imagining is how politics awash in money could not lead to the corruption of our democracy and the appearance of it. As Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion in Citizens United, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” And Americans do indeed seem to believe that their Congressmen respond to their donors and special interests rather than their constituents (or their own consciences).
Economic power thus “buys” political power that makes it even easier to amass greater wealth, which is used to “buy” more political power, and so on, in a downward spiral – downward, that is, for our democracy. It has been argued that we are now a plutocracy (rule by and for the rich) or an oligarchy (rule by the few) rather than a democracy, and recent academic research supports those contentions. Whether you use the term “plutocracy” or “oligarchy,” the evidence supporting the application of these terms to the United States in recent decades has been mounting – we are increasingly a country ruled by and for the rich few. In fact, over half the members of our current Congress are themselves millionaires (or multi-millionaires).
And about that “one-person-one-vote” thing … In several red (and purple) states it’s become “one-person-one-vote if you can get to vote at all.” Practically within minutes of the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, Republican-controlled legislatures in these states enacted laws making it harder for people – poor people, minorities, and students, in particular – to vote. The roadblocks that have been erected are often onerous (and designed to be so) and may well prove insurmountable for many of the targeted citizens. And that’s just the way Republicans want it. The ostensible reason for these laws has been to prevent “voter fraud,” but there is virtually no voter fraud, and some Republicans have pretty much admitted that the real reason for the laws is to suppress Democratic votes.
These voter suppression tactics, along with extreme gerrymandering and campaign finance issues have seriously tarnished the image of America’s electoral process compared to that of other well established democracies. In the Electoral Integrity Project’s 2013 Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index and ranking, the United States received the lowest score among Western nations.
If we are not all free to cast our votes unimpeded, we are freer and freer to carry guns in all sorts of public places. The United States has the highest per capita rate of firearm-related homicides in the developed world, with a rate that is generally an order of magnitude higher than rates in other developed countries. And yet many states have been making it easier to “pack heat.” Another mass murder by a crazy person with a gun (like the senseless massacre of innocent children in Sandy Hook, CT)? We express our horror but are unable or unwilling to actually do something about it.
Even the food we eat has changed – for the worse, many would argue – over the last several decades. I recently saw a poster on Facebook that made me laugh. It said, “Try Organic Food … or, as your grandparents called it, ‘food’.” Decades ago, all food was organic. All beef was pasture-raised; all beef, pork, and chicken was from free-range animals; and all eggs came from cage-free hens. There were no “food products,” only food. This was back when food was produced on farms rather than by Agribusiness, back before animals raised for consumption were “produced” in “factory farms.”
The goal of factory farming is to raise as many animals as cheaply as possible for human consumption, and it has been spectacularly successful at this. Factory farming started in the United States and Europe, but it has been spreading to other countries. But “factory farmers” don’t want us to see what goes on in their factory farms – because what goes on there can only be described as inhumane torture of animals.
Similarly, Big Agribusiness wants to have “input” on how the federal government makes recommendations to the public on healthy eating. Michael Pollan, one of our outstanding food writers, describes a “political dust-up” in 1977 that captures the tenor of the interaction between Agribusiness and government:
“Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” … the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually ‘reduce consumption of meat’ — was replaced by artful compromise: ‘Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.’”
And that was back in 1977; things have not improved since then, to say the least.
So there have been many changes in the United States over the last several decades, and many of them are, to put it kindly, worrying. (To put it unkindly, they are horrifying.) Of course, what may be horrifying to me may be welcome to some others. The expansion of “open carry” gun laws that allow people to openly carry their guns in all sorts of public places (like restaurants), for example, are welcomed by people who like to “pack heat,” but unwelcome to the rest of us who worry that some of those gun-lovers are also crazy and/or hot-tempered. The evidence, I think, is on our side.
And some of the changes that are upsetting to most Americans (at least the ones who are paying attention) – like our transition to plutocracy – are just peachy to the very few who are benefiting so handsomely. None of the changes discussed here, I would argue, have increased the public good. In fact, they have largely come about in response to the desires of industry and special interests, regardless of a clear negative impact on the public good.
People talk about our freedom and our democracy, about American exceptionalism, about the wonders of the “free market,” but really this is more and more just a “story” we’re telling ourselves. More accurately, it is mostly the political right that is telling this story, trying to convince themselves and everyone else. But as time goes on, the story is increasingly divorced from reality (as is the political right).
Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Similarly, it is difficult to get a man (or a political party) to understand something when his (or its) ability to stay in a position of power depends on not understanding it. The Republican Party of recent years has been called “the party of stupid” by one of its own; I would say that it has also become the party of falsehood, relying heavily on denying realities that are inconvenient (in that they don’t mesh with the party’s ideology).
But, as Ezra Klein points out, minority parties are not as responsible as the majority party for actually governing, so they “have the luxury of being irresponsible,” so that “all else being equal, minority parties will be less tethered to good evidence. And right now, Republicans are the minority party.” Still, even assuming some expected minority party irresponsibility, I would argue that, given the sheer size and scope of the consequences, climate change denial is in a class by itself.
The consequences of nearly every elected Republican having signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge are similarly daunting (if not quite in the same league as climate change denial). As Klein observes, by having signed this pledge, Republicans are “effectively promising to ignore both evidence and circumstance when building budgets.” This and its climate change denial are pretty striking examples of a political party living in a bubble where what they say they believe, and what they say they will do, is untethered to evidence.
Of course, such behavior has moral implications, because this denial of evidence ultimately harms people. And I’m struck by the utter lack of concern for all the suffering that is being caused and that is in the queue (since, if we continue much longer under a “business as usual” scenario, climate change will likely ultimately cause damage and suffering of biblical proportions).
Similarly, the decisions of corporations have moral implications, for the same reason. In an earlier essay (see here) I wrote, “It’s not that capitalism is immoral; it’s amoral. There’s no place in the incentive structure of capitalism for moral considerations.” But corporations are run by people. Someone has to make the decisions that determine what corporations do and don’t do. If the CEO of a corporation decides to ignore the accumulating science on climate change or the health effects of cigarette smoking – or to fight it with a misinformation campaign – that is a decision with serious consequences for public health and welfare. And that makes it a decision with heavy moral implications.
As I’m writing this essay, yet another senseless mass murder happened – on May 24 in Isla Vista near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. In a heart-wrenching statement after his twenty-year old son’s senseless killing, Richard Martinez pinpointed the true underlying cause of the tragedy. “Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A,” he said. “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’”
We don’t have to live like this. Adam Gopnik notes that in other countries people don’t live like this – which gives the lie to all the excuses made by the National Rifle Association:
“Christopher died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. That’s true. That the killer in question was in the grip of a mad, woman-hating ideology, or that he was also capable of stabbing someone to death with a knife, are peripheral issues to the central one of a gun culture that has struck the Martinez family and ruined their lives. … Why did Christopher Michael-Martinez die? Because the N.R.A. and the politicians they intimidate enable people to get their hands on weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill other people as quickly and as lethally as possible. How do we know that they are the ‘because’ in this? Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn’t happened again.”
The multiple senseless killings are only the most blatant manifestation of a wider phenomenon that we are witnessing in the United States, where industry and special interests enrich themselves while harming the public. We tell a good story of “free markets” and freedom and democracy and “American exceptionalism,” but increasingly it’s just a story. The story is like Dorian Gray, ever handsome and young. The reality is like the picture of Dorian Gray, a rather ugly – I would even say increasingly grotesque – society in which capitalism has broken most of the fetters that were intended to restrain its worst impulses and our democracy has been up for sale to the highest bidders. Instead of lifting all boats, American capitalism has sunk many small boats and turned the biggest boats into gigantic and lavish yachts. Our politics are awash in money and our country is awash in guns. We have become a country in which money is so important that rich corporations really can and do essentially “buy” Congressmen to “represent” their interests, the thinning veneer of democracy notwithstanding; a country that extols the virtues of freedom and democracy while one of its two major political parties tries to make it harder for people to vote; a country that has gotten used to frequent random massacres by madmen with guns and does nothing about it; a country whose “factory farms” routinely torture animals in the process of turning them into food while keeping it from the public eye; a country in which economic behemoths have so captured our government (the GOP in particular) that Republicans would rather deny climate change – even as we witness its impacts and virtually all climate scientists are warning ever more urgently about its potentially catastrophic consequences – than admit a reality that implicates one of its benefactors; a country that sees itself as exceptionally good, but by many objective measures has become exceptionally bad.
There is so much, at this point, that is so wrong with America. The rest of the world sees it and wonders what has happened to us, because there is no closet in which to hide what we’ve become. We gloat about being the handsome young man that all admire, like Dorian Gray. But really, we’ve become the picture of Dorian Gray. Things didn’t end well for Dorian Gray. How will they go for America?
 From Reagan’s Farewell address to the nation: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29650
 From Wikipedia’s discussion of “American exceptionalism” at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism, which provides a good discussion of the meaning of the term its history.
 See, for example, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/15/income-inequality-wall-street_n_3762422.html; http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/map-us-ranks-near-bottom-on-income-inequality/245315/; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/09/27/map-how-the-worlds-countries-compare-on-income-inequality-the-u-s-ranks-below-nigeria/; or http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-20/the-u-dot-s-dot-has-higher-income-inequality-than-britain-dot-and-bangladesh-dot-and-ethiopia
 “Can expect to live …” refers to life expectancy. It means that on average a rich person will live 5 years longer than an otherwise identical poor person. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/21/rich-americans-live-5-yea_n_1616462.html
 U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012: Current Population Reports.” http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf. See Figure 10.
 There are several references for this. See, for example, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp0910064. For a good overview, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Health_Organization_ranking_of_health_systems_in_2000
 There are a number of references for this. (Try putting keywords “medical crisis” and “bankruptcies” into Google, and you’ll get several.) See, for example, http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/jun2009/db2009064_666715.htm
 See, for example, http://www.salon.com/2014/04/09/global_rankings_study_america_in_warp_speed_decline_partner/
 This is the sort of issue that really requires careful analysis; in general, it seems to be true that money increases a candidate’s chances of winning, but because other factors are also very important, the increase in probability is not necessarily substantial. For a nice discussion, see http://themonkeycage.org/2011/11/04/does-money-affect-election-outcomes-in-us-politics-a-quick-review-of-the-literature/. For a discussion of the whether negative political ads work, See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-negative-political-ads-work/
 Quoted in: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/opinion/nocera-rethinking-campaign-finance.html?mabReward=RI%3A5&action=click&contentCollection=The+Upshot®ion=Footer&module=Recommendation&src=recg&pgtype=article&_r=0
 See http://campaignmoney.org/blog/2013/12/17/new-poll-voters-say-members-congress-listen-donors-more. See also, L. Lessig. Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. Twelve. 2011, p. 88
 Larry Bartels, a political scientist who has studied the voting patterns of congressmen, found that congressmen in both parties respond to the desires of the rich, but not the middle or lower classes. See Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8664.html; see also Gilens, M. and B. Page. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Forthcoming – Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics. https://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
 There are many references for this. See, for example, http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/election-2013-voting-laws-roundup; http://www.thenation.com/blog/175441/north-carolina-passes-countrys-worst-voter-suppression-law#; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_suppression_in_the_United_States
 A lot has been written about this. See, for example, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/23/why-judge-posner-is-right-on-voter-id-laws.html; http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/republicans-are-bringing-back-reconstruction-era-voting-in-n-c; and
 The rate in the U.S. is about 3.2 per 100,000 population, compared to rates of 0.06 in France, 0.51 in Canada, 0.2 in Spain, 0.14 in Australia, and 0.27 in Denmark. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/nation/gun-homicides-ownership/table/
 Although the frequency of high-profile mass shootings in the United States in recent years is disheartening, to say the least, gun homicides in the United States have actually declined dramatically since the early 1990’s. See, for example:
 I won’t go into the gory details here, but there is a wealth of commentary on this – particularly on methods of severe confinement of pigs, severe crowding of all animals raised in factory farms, and the use of antibiotics to allow the animals to survive the filthy conditions in which they are raised before they are slaughtered in an even more inhumane manner.
 Michael Pollan. “Unhappy Meals.” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
 Ezra Klein on Vox.com: http://www.vox.com/2014/4/23/5642116/liberal-climate-denial
 There are, at this point, many articles written about the truly extreme impacts of climate change that can be expected if we continue to do virtually nothing about it. See, for example, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/05/inquiring-minds-richard-alley-antarctica-greenland-sandy
 In my essay, “The Limits to Capitalism,” I wrote that the “free market” cannot regulate itself; we need something outside the market – namely, government – to prohibit the companies from doing things that harm the public. I also noted, however, that when the “free market” captures government, that doesn’t happen.
 Quoted in a piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker magazine: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/05/christopher-michael-martinezs-father-gets-it-right.html?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=facebook&mbid=social_facebook