My family lives in a university-owned apartment complex whose population consists mainly of people from abroad, living in the United States for a graduate program or a postdoc. Those of us who are from this country, therefore, find ourselves conscripted into the service of having to explain the mysteries of Americanism to intelligent internationals. Such duties have become especially frequent since the election of Donald J. Trump.
The questions go something like this: Why does the latest Republican tax proposal target low-income graduate students and help rich corporations? Why is there suddenly a travel ban against my country, when our people have never caused trouble here? What is with all the guns and mass shootings? Where is the efficient, universal health care I have been used to in all the other countries I’ve lived in? Why are there so many homeless people? And, seriously, climate change?
What is with all the guns and mass shootings? Why are there so many homeless people? And, seriously, climate change?
A part of me simply wants to apologize for it all, roll my eyes and change the subject. But I think these questions deserve better answers. There is a logic at play or at least a mythology, and visitors should understand it.
First, I will say, this is part of why you are here. You came to the United States because we have a lot of very good, well-funded universities where you can do work that would be harder to do where you come from. One reason for this is we charge students enormous sums of money to access higher education. Even those who can afford to go may spend most of their lives paying off the debt, if they ever do. Because we refuse to acknowledge university education as a right, the privilege of it becomes all the more attractive—not just to us but to you.
The universities that brought you here are just one of the ways this country optimizes for inequality. And it is not just a cruel mistake. It is a strategy for winning.
If our forbearers had respected treaties and human rights, few of us would be here.
This strategy has deep roots. This is cowboy country. This country would not exist the way it does if our predecessors had not been willing to exterminate whole civilizations, settle in, dig up minerals and enslave each other. If our forbearers had respected treaties and human rights, few of us would be here.
Ruthlessness is not the only feature of U.S. history; it has also included a great deal of cooperation, solidarity and community. But it is the part we celebrate in our schoolbooks and our movies. It is why Mr. Trump could win the presidency by calling immigrants rapists, boasting about sexual assault and bullying the competition. We have elected people like this before. No-drama Obama, not President Trump, was the exception. This is why Mr. Trump could borrow rhetoric for the campaign trail from one criminal former president, then hang a portrait of the genocidal onetime leader of his opponent’s party in the Oval Office. Both those guys won reelection in their day.
In cowboy country, the goal is not to make sure everyone is safe and secure. It is to enable a few people to do really, really well, without being dragged down by everyone else. If you focus too much on being safe and secure, there is less room for greatness.
In cowboy country, the goal is not to make sure everyone is safe and secure. It is to enable a few people to do really, really well.
Hence the guns; deep down we know we would be safer without them, but in cowboy country we are used to keeping death and killing close. Hence the lack of health care, also; if people know they will be taken care of no matter what, what will motivate them to scramble to the top of the heap? These suppositions work. Keeping fear in our midst has built us the most powerful military on the planet. And while millions of people here go without any medical insurance coverage at all, those who do have it pay for research and invention that the rest of the better-covered world benefits from.
You might point out that the country’s entrepreneurial spirit is not what we imagine it to be. We have fewer startups and less innovation than many countries worth comparing ourselves to, and our economic mobility is pretty lousy, too. But nearly all the most valuable companies in the world started here. The exceptions prove the rule. The exceptions are the point.
If people know they will be taken care of no matter what, what will motivate them to scramble to the top of the heap?
So-called American exceptionalism is not just for the sake of being different from other countries—on health care, on guns, on climate change. It is a strategy, and it is a social contract we are taught to accept all our lives here. It has been a winning strategy, too, if economic, military and cultural dominance over much of the world counts as winning, as it arguably does.
That does not mean everyone in the country accepts this deal or that we should. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to “promote the general welfare,” and there is reason to believe that this is inconsistent with sacrificing the welfare of millions so as to revel in the achievements of an exceptional few. The Bible, which allegedly inspired that founding document, has something to say about “the least of these.” This country has produced pioneers not just in extraction and extermination but in struggles for justice and rights, especially among the poor, women and those who cannot claim the privileges of whiteness. But they were never supposed to be protagonists in the cowboy mythology anyway.
Whether or not one likes the logic of cowboy country, one should understand how it works and that it does work, at least by its own standards. It works very well, in fact, so it is not merely idiocy that makes people get behind it in elections. For those of us who call the United States home, articulating this logic can help us understand each other and clarify the question of whether this is really what we want.