American Exceptionalism: Are We as Good as We Believe?

I believe a case can be made that Americans are experiencing cognitive dissonance in evaluating our country’s relative standing in the world. On the one hand we believe in American Exceptionalism but on the other hand there’s a lingering feeling that our country is slipping, that “American Exceptionalism” isn’t as robust as it once was. What does the evidence suggest? Fortunately researchers at the University of California released a new study providing findings on the topic.

The authors examined nine domains that represent essential components of a healthy, well-functioning society: the economy, education, health, the polity, the environment, social capital, mental health and subjective well-being, crime and incarceration, and mobility and opportunity. Twenty countries, including the U.S. were included in the study.

I have organized the study’s findings in three categories: 1) domains where the U.S. exhibits top tier performance, 2) domains where the U.S. exhibits average performance, and 3) domains where the U.S. exhibits below average performance.  Finally, I report the authors’ aggregate summary as provided in their Societal Well-Being Index, an average score from  each of the 9 domains.

I. Domains Where the U.S. Exhibits Top Tier Performance


Summary Economy Domain. Average of 5 Indicators: GDP Per Capita (2008), Median Wealth (2010), Mean Wealth (2010), Median Disposable Income (2000-2004), Poverty Rate after Transfers (2008)

Summary - Economy DomainSocial Capital Domain

Summary Social Capital Domain.  Based on 3 Indicators: Percent Trusting People, Group Belonging, and Average Number of Close Friends

Social Capital Domain

II. Domains Where The U.S. Exhibits Average Performance

Education Domain

Summary Education Domain. Average of 3 Indicators: PISA Scores (2009), Adult Literacy Scores (1999), and Percent High School & College Graduates (2008)

Education Domain

III. Domains Where The U.S. Exhibits Below Average Performance

Health Domain

Health Domain Summary. Average of 5 Indicators: Healthy Life Expectancy (2007), Life Expectancy at Birth (2008), Disability-Adjusted Life Years (2000), Infant Mortality
(2008), and Percent Obese (2005-09)

Health DomainCrime Domain

Summary Crime Domain. Crime Includes 4 Indicators: Assault Rate (2006), Homicide Rate (2004-7), Percent Feeling Unsafe (2000-5), Incarceration Rate (2009)

Crime DomainPolity Domain

Summary Polity Domain. Average of Democracy (Economist 2008) and Voice and Accountability (World Bank 2007) scores

Polity DomainMental Health and Subjective Well-Being Domain

Summary Mental Health and Subjective Well-Being Domain. Based on 6 Indicators: Life Satisfaction (1999-2007), Life Evaluation (2007), Suicide Rate (2004-8), Mental Health Disorders (2004), Drug Abuse (2007), Alcohol Abuse (2004)

Mental Health and Subjective Well-Being DomainEnvironment Domain

Summary Environment Domain. Based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index (2008)

Environment DomainMobility and Opportunity Domain

Summary Mobility and Opportunity Domain. Based on 5 Indicators: Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity (1995-2002), Earnings Elasticity (2009), Occupational Mobility (2000), Percent Staying in Bottom 5th (1990s), Intergenerational Mobility (2005)

Mobility DomainIV. Overall Ranking in the World – Index of Societal Well-Being

After calculating each country’s score on the nine domains the authors of the study  averaged the results to create an Index of Societal Well-Being.

Aggregate Summary – Societal Well-Being Index: Each country’s Societal Well-Being Index score is the average of its scores for each of the 9 domains for which there was data on enough indicators to generate a domain score. Scores for countries missing some domains
(Crime and/or Mobility) are the average of the remaining 7 or 8 domains.

Societal Well-Being IndexThe U.S. is third from the bottom, a difficult finding for American pride.


This study was difficult to read. Nevertheless, I believe it’s within the American spirit to regain our leadership in the world. I would argue that there’s an overwhelming desire among the American people to put our shoulder to wheel, make the necessary sacrifices of time, effort and treasure in order to hold our head high again among the developed countries of the world.

There are a few important lessons I learned in my career that apply to issues big and small. First, you can’t solve a problem if you are unaware of the problem. The American people need to understand the degree to which we have slipped in world rankings as a prerequisite for future action. Second, you can’t solve the problem alone. In collaboration with many stakeholders you have to develop a collective vision and a strategy to resolve the problem. Systems-thinking is required. The problems we face are intertwined, necessitating comprehensive strategies that attack sub-systems, without losing sight of major goals, in a coordinated and thoughtful manner. Our political parties, which are supposed to provide ‘visions’ appear to be interested in ‘party first, country second’ strategies. We won’t move off this step until our political system changes toward a country first perspective. Third, you need to mobilize resources to attack the problem. There are no silver bullets to resolve complex, systemic problems, so fourth, you need to “measure it to improve it” which implies a continuous quality improvement strategy over a sufficient period of time. Each year Americans should receive reports on the progress we make and, if needed, necessary mid-course corrections. The more complex the problem, the longer the time to number five — celebrate success and give credit to the people who did the heavy lifting. I’m waiting for someone to step forward to lead the way!

Related posts


Karabel, Jerome, and Laurison, Daniel.  (2011). Outlier Nation? American Exceptionalism and Societal Well-Being. University of California. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

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One Response to American Exceptionalism: Are We as Good as We Believe?

  1. WiseFather says:

    American Exceptionalism is the puffery used to excuse misadventure abroad and inaction at home. In a recent blog post I analyze the American Exceptionalism concept and contrast it with a healthy patriotism that could help unite the public against those few who are ruining America.

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