Is America Exceptional?

What makes the U.S. unique

June 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

The US of A. Taste the awesome.

Kick-ass military. ‘Cuz freedom.

Tons of cash. Yeah, we don’t even know what to do with all of it.

Killer bears — why not? We always take it to 11.

And huge trucks? Hell yeah, there’s huge trucks!

[Slows down, VO returns to normal]

OK, we can go a little over the top sometimes. No one ever accused us of being understated.

But here’s the thing: There’s more than a little truth to the idea that America is different than the rest of the world.

In a lot of ways that should make us proud…

…and a few that probably shouldn’t.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Say what you will about the United States, but one area where we’re definitely number one … is self-esteem. A 2016 poll found that over 40 percent of Americans think they live in the best country in the world, the highest rate of any nation.i

(Also, side note: maybe someone should check on the French?)

You’ve probably heard this kind of national pride described as “American Exceptionalism.”

Except, one hitch: That’s not what that phrase means. At least, not necessarily.

When social scientists talk about “American Exceptionalism” what they mean isn’t that America is better or worse than any other country, it’s that we’re … different. Like really, oddly different.

Perhaps the single clearest example of this comes from a decades-long survey of world cultures that found that the U.S. is the most individualistic country on the planet.ii And that tracks with polls showing Americans are among the most likely people to say that “hard work” is the key to getting ahead in life or that people are in control of their own fates.iii

Now, why does this matter? Because it shapes our culture … and our public policy. We don’t just think differently than the rest of the world, we act differently. And there’s a clear pattern at work: When Americans are given a choice, they tend to opt for more freedom than other countries. And there’s a good chance that that’s just as responsible for the things you like best about America as for the things you like least.

Start with our economy. Take a look at the OECD — the group of industrialized nations most similar to the U.S. — and you’ll immediately see that … we’re kind of a freakshow.

Americans make more money than any of those other countriesiv … and we also work longer hours than most of them.v That might also be part of the reason we’ve got nearly 60% of the world’s largest companiesvi , own the biggest homesvii, and have the highest disposable incomes.viii

And, of course, that comes with tradeoffs. We’re also the only OECD country that doesn’t require paid leave for workers.ix And the one where it’s the easiest to fire employees.x

We’re an outlier on taxes too, with only about half as much going to the government as a country like Denmarkxi — but then we also spend significantly less on social welfare programs.xii

Which doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to people who’ve fallen on hard times. Because another way we’re exceptional is that the U.S. leads the world in charitable giving, with the highest contributions of time and money to those in need.xiii

In fact, while a country like France dedicates nearly double as much of its national wealth to social spending as the U.S. … Americans give more than double as much of their wealth to charity as the French do.xiv

Now, lest our heads get too big, it’s worth knowing that we’re also exceptional on some fronts where … you don’t want to be. The U.S. has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any country in the world.xv But that’s at least in part because we also have a murder rate seven times higher than other wealthy nations.xvi

And while it’s tempting to blame that on guns — which, by the way, we own way, way more of than any other country in the worldxvii — that’s not the full story. Because when it comes to murders that don’t involve a gun, the rates in the U.S. are still more than double those in other industrialized nations.xviii We’re just a uniquely violent country. I mean, c’mon, you don’t get Quentin Tarantino from Sweden.

Although if you did … we’d have snatched him up by now. Because another way we’re unique is that America is home to more immigrants than any country in the world: over 50 million.xix And our long history of welcoming newcomers has led to some eye-popping statistics…

…like the fact that there are about 80% as many Norwegian-Americans as there are people living in Norwayxx; more than 80% as many Jews as there are in Israelxxi; and six times as many Irish-Americans as there are citizens of Ireland.xxii That’s right: For all intents and purposes, Boston is a colony.

Check the data and time and again, you’ll find that America is a distinctive and unusual country.

We’re simultaneously the only nation in the industrialized world without universal healthcarexxiii and the world’s leader in new drugs and medical devices.xxiv

We simultaneously have the world’s oldest constitution and some of its lowest voting rates.xxv

We simultaneously have more Nobel Prizes than the next five countries combinedxxvi and more … animal-themed dating shows.

Bottom line: we’re a little weird. The good kind of weird, but weird nonetheless. And whether we want to boast about what’s best about our country or complain about what’s worst, we should keep in mind that … they’re probably two sides of the same coin. And whether or not we’re #1, we can all at least agree that we’re kinda special…

…except for this guy. This guy we can assure you is not special.

Sources

  1. What the World Thinks — YouGov
  2. Dimension Maps of the World: Individualism — Geert Hofstede 
  3. “How Do Americans Stand Out From the Rest of the World?” (George Gao) — Pew Research Center 
  4. Average Wages Indicator — OECD
  5. Average Annual Hours Actually Worked per Worker — OECD
  6. Global Top 100 Companies — PricewaterhouseCoopers
  7. OECD Affordable Housing Database: Living Space — OECD 
  8. Gross Adjusted Household Disposable Income per Capita of OECD Countries in 2020 — Statista
  9. “Among 41 Countries, Only U.S. Lacks Paid Parental Leave” (Gretchen Livingston, Deja Thomas) — Pew Research Center
  10. Strictness of Employment Protection: Individual and Collective Dismissals (Regular Contracts) — OECD
  11. Revenue Statistics 2021: The Initial Impact of COVID-19 on OECD Tax Revenues — OECD
  12. Social Protection: Social Spending — OECD
  13. CAF’s World Giving Index — Charities Aid Foundation
  14. Social Protection: Social Spending — OECD
  15. Highest To Lowest: Prison Population Rate — World Prison Brief
  16. Violent Death Rates in the U.S. Compared to Those Of The Other High-income Countries, 2015 (Erin Grinshteyn, David Hemenway) — Geschke Center, University of San Francisco 
  17. Estimating Global Civilian-held Firearms Numbers (Aaron Karp) — Small Arms Survey
  18. Violent Death Rates in the U.S. Compared to Those Of The Other High-income Countries, 2015 (Erin Grinshteyn, David Hemenway) — Geschke Center, University of San Francisco
  19. International Migration 2020 — United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  20. American Community Survey: People Reporting Ancestry — U.S. Census Bureau 
  21. U.S. Jewish Population Estimates 2020 — American Jewish Population Project, Brandeis University
  22. Irish-American Heritage Month and St. Patrick’s Day: March 2022 — U.S. Census Bureau
  23. Universal Health Care Diagnosis Is on the Mark” (D.L. Davis) — PolitiFact
  24. United States: #6 in the 2021 World Index of Healthcare Innovation (Gregg Girvan, Avik Roy) — Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
  25. “In Past Elections, U.S. Trailed Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout” (Drew DeSilver) — Pew Research Center 
  26. Looking Back at the Remarkable History of the Nobel Prize From 1901-2021 Using Maps, Charts, and Tables” (Mark J. Perry) — American Enterprise Institute

Shownotes

SOUND | Artlist: "Foot Chase Hose Down" (Falconer), "Lombard Street" (Stefano Mastronardi) // Premium Beat: "Crashing and Burning" (Brightside Studios), "Old Glory" (Little Red Church), "Maggie in the Woods" (Dynamite Music), "Epic Recovery" (Immersive Music) // Disney: The Muppets // Pond5

FOOTAGE | Lane Pittman //Periscope Films: Life at Statesville: The Wasted Years (1961) //Library of Congress // U.S. National Archives & Records Administration // The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Emanuel Leutze // NASA: Astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander // The Nobel Foundation // U.S. Airforce: Senior Airman Julianne Show // Architect of the Capitol: Howard Chandler Christy // Hathi Trust Digital Library: Dodd, Mead, and Company // NBC: The Apprentice // Disney: The Muppets, DuckTales (1987) // Netflix: Sexy Beasts (2021) // World Rugby //Rick’s Film Restoration // Getty: WOWStockFootage, Time Image, Petrified Films,Archive Farms / Getty Images, Grinberg, Aparamount, Pathe Newsreels, Ultra Film, Imageways, Bettman / Contributor, Buyenlarge / Contributor, Agence France Presse, The Washington Post, Robyn Beck / Contributor, Alexi Rosenfeld / Contributor, Tzido, Stephen Wollwerth, Byrdyak, Tamir Kalifa, Tim DeFrisco / Stringer,SteveColeImages, James Brey, Pigprox, VisualSpace, Piola666, Hal Bergman,Scott Olson / Staff, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Spencer Platt / Staff, Joe Raedle / Staff,RichLegg, Hoptocopter, Osathank, Simonkr, Yuri Arcurs, NYonAir, Komisar, Viacom Media Networks, Urilux, Urbancow, Szepy, Stocknroll, RTImages, Fstop123, Halbergman, Burkefoto, Mgost, Fotografia, Inc., ShutterOK, Brandon Bell / Staff, OrlowskiDesigns, Funkey Factory, Felix Finken, Sky News, Miryana Slivenska / EyeEm, Paul Marotta / Contributor, Frederic J. Brown / Contributor, Uberstock, Jinglemarket, Lewkmiller, Stefania M. D’Alessandro / Stringer // Adobe: ATW Media, Flashmovie // YouTube: Guy Jones, Amazing Airshow Videos // Unsplash: Tim Mossholder, Library of Congress, Girl With Red Hat, Igor Bispo, Erica Marsland Huynh, Matt Hoffman, Cristina Glebova, Marjan Blan, Venti Views, Grant Cai, NASA, Jose Matute, Jennifer Shishmanian, Benjamin Rascoe, Gabriel Tovar // Pexels: Katie RainbowRichard Ellis, Bronze Digitals, Karolina Grabowska, Polina Zimmerman, Trev Adams, Brendan Spring, Kelly L, Max Medyk, Zhang Khaiyv, RODNAE Productions, Salvatore De Ellis, Pixabay, City Xcape, George Morina, Life of Pix, Tima Miroshnichenko, Edward Jenner,Gifting.com, James Wheeler, Casey Whalen, Gu Bra, Markus Spiske, Kevin Malik, MILO Textures, Lombe K, Gustavo AC, Cordeiro Suekel, MART Production // Amazon: BinaryABC, Hyzrz // Freepik: Grebeshkovmaxim, User19177862, Katemangostar, Bazzier // ViralHog: @sootlife1 // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. YouGov
    What the World Thinks
  2. Geert Hofstede
    Dimension Maps of the World: Individualism 
  3. Pew Research Center
    “How Do Americans Stand Out From the Rest of the World?” (George Gao)
  4. OECD
    Average Wages Indicator
  5. OECD
    Average Annual Hours Actually Worked per Worker 
  6. PricewaterhouseCoopers
    Global Top 100 Companies
  7. OECD
    OECD Affordable Housing Database: Living Space 
  8. Statista
    Gross Adjusted Household Disposable Income per Capita of OECD Countries in 2020
  9. Pew Research Center
    “Among 41 Countries, Only U.S. Lacks Paid Parental Leave” (Gretchen Livingston, Deja Thomas)
  10. OECD
    Strictness of Employment Protection: Individual and Collective Dismissals (Regular Contracts)
  11. OECD
    Revenue Statistics 2021: The Initial Impact of COVID-19 on OECD Tax Revenues
  12. OECD
    Social Protection: Social Spending 
  13. Charities Aid Foundation
    CAF’s World Giving Index 
  14. World Prison Brief
    Highest To Lowest: Prison Population Rate 
  15. University of San Francisco
    Violent Death Rates in the U.S. Compared to Those Of The Other High-income Countries, 2015 (Erin Grinshteyn, David Hemenway)
  16. Small Arms Survey
    Estimating Global Civilian-held Firearms Numbers (Aaron Karp)
  17. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
    International Migration 2020
  18. U.S. Census Bureau
    American Community Survey: People Reporting Ancestry
  19. American Jewish Population Project, Brandeis University
    U.S. Jewish Population Estimates 2020
  20. U.S. Census Bureau
    Irish-American Heritage Month and St. Patrick’s Day: March 2022
  21. PolitiFact
    Universal Health Care Diagnosis Is on the Mark” (D.L. Davis)
  22. Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
    United States: #6 in the 2021 World Index of Healthcare Innovation (Gregg Girvan, Avik Roy)
  23. Pew Research Center
    “In Past Elections, U.S. Trailed Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout” (Drew DeSilver) 
  24. American Enterprise Institute
    Looking Back at the Remarkable History of the Nobel Prize From 1901-2021 Using Maps, Charts, and Tables” (Mark J. Perry)

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