When were we the greatest?


In an on-air interview, a CNN correspondent described the surplus National Guard troops patrolling Washington, D.C. in response to the violent riot at our nation’s capital building. He expressed shock at the need for this response, saying that “this kind of scene is something you see in the Middle East, not the United States of America”

This comment is one of many to come after the attack on the capitol that depicts the situation as America’s fall from grace. Numerous members of Congress said in speeches that “the United States is a strong democracy, not some banana republic”. 

The attack on the Capitol building by far-right Trump supporters is being painted as the worst thing that the United States has ever done to itself. It is being discussed as the low point of our broken nation. 

And, along with their severe condemnations of the violence, politicians always seem to revisit one key talking point: We will get through this. Our democracy is stronger than this. We are stronger than this. We as a nation are better than this. 

Extremist attacks aside, our leaders consistently repeat this — that they believe the United States is the greatest country in the world. We also hear this often with the idea of “the American Dream”.

But this common rhetoric overlooks the deep flaws the United States has always had. This country was founded on the labor of enslaved Black people, who still have to deal with the present continuation of institutional racism. “Manifest destiny”, the idea that the United States was meant to expand, was used as an excuse for the government to violently displace Native Americans from the land they resided on, and the government still mistreats Native Americans horrendously today.

The characteristics we are most proud of, being “free and democratic”, are strengths that many other countries have as well, but they avoid our numerous institutional issues. 

We have the most gun violence of any developed country. Our strongly capitalist system keeps many people in poverty and concentrates wealth with only a small group of people. Most Americans are left to their own devices to get medical treatment with the lack of a centralized healthcare system, which further exacerbates existing social inequalities and robs many people of their basic right — life. 

We have the wealth and resources to make life better for our citizens, but this is often not taken advantage of — in 2019, experts ranked the U.S. #1 in disaster preparedness out of 195 countries, but our government’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic has left us with 400,000 people dead and the second-highest positivity rate in the world. 

So, yes, the United States certainly is unique from the rest of the world, but these differences are not necessarily something we should be proud of. 

Yet we are told that there is some extraordinary American Dream of wealth, freedom, and happiness that anyone is capable of getting, if they just work hard enough. And that, because of this, we are the greatest country on earth.

These ideas of American exceptionalism have been ingrained in us — somehow, the world seems to center around the United States 

Literally — most world maps have been produced with a distortion that makes the U.S. look much bigger than it actually is. And the world is easy for us to navigate. English, the main language spoken here, is the “lingua franca”, or business language, of the world, and many Americans simply expect everyone they meet to speak English. Even the name “Americans” to describe people from the United States ignores the existence of the 34 other countries in the North, Central and South Americas, signaling the singular focus on the U.S.

This along with the blatant rhetoric of American superiority makes us feel like we are the center of the world, subtly telling us that we can do whatever we want, leading to terrible international conduct which often ignores the interests of people outside the U.S. 

Our intrusion in Central and Latin America, where we have cooperated with big companies that ignore any interests of and exploit common people, is responsible for many of the “banana republics” that we have deemed ourselves better than. 

We are also responsible for much of the instability in the Middle East. In 1953, we overthrew Iran’s democratically elected president so that we could institute a monarch who would be more friendly with us. In 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, resulting in the deaths of over a million Iraqis. The weapons that the U.S. currently supply to Saudi Arabia are used to commit human rights atrocities in the war in Yemen. 

The American superiority complex also results in us viewing other countries as needing saving by us. The most prominent instance of this is the consistent depiction of all people in Africa as not only homogenous but also sick, poor, and living in terrible conditions — a stereotype that runs rampant here and completely dehumanizes an entire continent of people.  

The idea that we are the most free country and have the greatest democracy on earth makes us feel that we need to fix how other countries operate so that they can be more like us. We have done just that — the United States has been responsible for 64 direct “changes in leadership”, or coups, abroad. This incessant meddling reflects how much we feel the world needs fixing by us (which, spoiler alert, usually helps no one).

The chaos we have been responsible for abroad is now reflecting itself at home, perhaps as some kind of karma for those sins. But there is no awareness and no remorse. 

Our leaders are painting the attack on the Capitol as America’s temporary fall into the failure of a third-world, violence-ridden country, with, relatively unsurprisingly, no responsibility claimed for America’s role in instability like that across the globe. 

Somehow, the recent attack on the Capitol is the worst thing this nation has done — Donald Trump’s failure of a presidency and his incitement of a deadly riot is our lowest point. 

This continues our internal rhetoric and belief in American exceptionalism — that despite the attack on it, our superior democracy will prevail, and despite this division, we will be returned to our former glory, resuming our role as the greatest country on earth. 

But when was that glory? When were we the greatest?