Most of the rest of the developed world has managed to get covid-19′s spread under control. New cases across the European Union have plummeted; in New Zealand, the virus has been virtually wiped out. These and other places that have successfully mitigated the spread have enabled more citizens to safely return to their pre-covid-19 lifestyles, including even attending athletic events with packed crowds.
Instead, they simply declare the virus vanquished, even as it claims more lives.
“There is no second wave coming,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow announced Monday, almost exactly four months and 118,000 deaths after he infamously declared the virus “contained” and “pretty close to airtight.” Vice President Pence made a similar declaration in a self-back-patting op-ed last week: “Whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success.”
How did a country once known for our get-up-and-go come to shrug off mass death, particularly when other countries’ records suggest many U.S. covid-19 deaths were preventable?
Faith in American exceptionalism has curdled into resigned acceptance. We got so accustomed to resting on our laurels that we fell asleep.
The United States entered this pandemic, after all, with President Trump boasting about a study that ranked the United States the world’s best-prepared country to handle an epidemic. That ranking was published in October; Trump does not seem to have updated his Panglossian assessment of our response.
This is of a piece with our supine responses to other national challenges that are unusually (sometimes uniquely) American. Much as they gave up on coronavirus containment, U.S. political leaders previously gave up on solving our epidemic of gun violence. And on our high numbers of police-perpetrated killings. Also our high rates of child poverty, uninsurance and carbon emissions.
On these and other metrics, the United States fares worse than most if not all other industrialized countries. Yet U.S. officials — from one party in particular — treat these crises as imaginary or unsolvable. (As the recurrent, viral Onion headline on mass-shootings notes: “ 'No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”) Because America is the world’s richest superpower, a city on a hill, our policy choices apparently must already be the best possible ones.
On the occasions political leaders do acknowledge that we’re not measuring up to peers, they excuse the failing as a trade-off necessary to pursue some other, supposedly superior American ideal. America can’t protect schoolchildren as other countries do, because we must prioritize unfettered access to firearms. America can’t save its grandparents from covid-19, because the Dow takes precedence. America can’t guarantee everyone health care, because [something something] liberty.
But there may be a ray of hope: Recent crises — involving health, the economy and police brutality — seem to have caused more Americans to question their country’s track record.
So suggests the COVID-19 Social Change Survey, a daily, nationally representative survey about the pandemic run by Northwestern University social scientists since mid-March. Some survey questions asked whether the United States is better, worse or about the same as other nations across about a dozen topics (economy, health care, criminal justice system, military, education, etc.).
On nearly every metric, the share of Americans rating the United States as “better” than other countries has declined since the pandemic began.
Normally, of course, reduced patriotism or institutional trust would not be positive developments. These declines can be constructive only if they spur the public — and elected officials — to create conditions that would inspire more patriotism and trust.
Such an outcome is not impossible, says Beth Redbird, a Northwestern sociology professor and principal investigator for the survey. “In times of great crisis, we can realize our institutions are not working for us,” Redbird says. “Maybe we decide it’s time to change institutions we’ve taken for granted.”
Maybe a more realistic assessment of our flaws — a crack in the national narcissism — will motivate change, at least if politicians ever catch up with their constituents.