NEW YORK — On the evening of 24 May, shortly after a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the writer Matthew Yglesias said on Twitter that “for all its very real problems… the contemporary United States of America is one of the best places to live in all of human history.” Yglesias’s tweet was poorly timed and provocative, seemingly designed to call as much attention to its author as possible; in times of crisis, our base instincts are hard to suppress. But the sentiment wasn’t incorrect.
The US is a pretty great place to live. In the majority of the country the water that comes from the pipes is drinkable. Most residents own a personal vehicle. Intricate supply chains ensure there is almost always a wide variety of food available on the shelves of every store you walk into. For many people who earn a middle-class income and live in urban centres or suburban enclaves, America is a paradise of convenience and plenty, where many enjoy a standard of living on par with any country in the world. As Yglesias noted, “there’s a reason tons of people of all kinds from all around the world clamor to move here”.
When they do, however, they often find that among all the opulence is horror: the taps in poor neighbourhoods run brown; many jobs pay workers in the food and service industry so little they struggle to buy the food they prepare; the cars guzzle fossil fuels and crash at alarming rates, causing injuries that victims must pay out of pocket to treat. And, of course, any time you venture out in public there is a very real chance you could be shot and killed by an armed stranger. To anyone who has experienced this side of American life, Yglesias’s breezy dismissal is deeply obnoxious. But it also represents a risk to those who are largely insulated from such hardships. American exceptionalism, or the belief that our country’s benefits outweigh or even justify its flaws, is the perfect gateway to a far darker future of authoritarianism that has already begun.
As Thomas Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University, wrote in 2017: “Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous.” Authoritarian regimes – many of which the US’s Republican Party is increasingly emulating – have a vested interest in keeping some base standard of living for their constituents while consolidating power and capital in their own hands. What Yglesias’s point misses is that even if America’s problems worsen, it will still remain a decent place to live for many of its residents. This comfort doesn’t blind American exceptionalists to the country’s problems; Yglesias is certainly aware that they exist. Instead, exceptionalism does something more insidious: it convinces those who are insulated from the country’s worst problems that what the US provides for them is worth the price it takes from others.
At its worst, exceptionalism discourages people from seeking to change things. Dictators and authoritarians often provide social services at whatever level they think will keep people complacent, and all too often use examples to show that things could be worse. And the transition from a flawed-but-functioning free society to one in an authoritarian grasp can be subtle.
“Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in apocalyptic terms,” Pepinsky wrote in 2017. “But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.”
This is the America that exists today. Political rhetoric after the mass shooting in Uvalde is the same as the rhetoric after the mass shooting in Buffalo, and after the shooting in Parkland, and after the shooting in Sandy Hook. The Republican Party – the US’s prospective authoritarians – does not care that the country’s ready supply of weapons regularly kills children en masse. The Democrats, meanwhile, are too hindered by their own ineptitude to force any policy changes through. What, then, are Americans meant to vote for? When the Republican Party’s grand project of judicial dominance and widespread voter suppression next succeeds, what change will any future election affect?
The US, and some of the values it was founded on, has done wonders for millions of lives. But believing that those successes justify, or even begin to balance, the pain our way of life causes for millions of others is a fast road to a complacent end, where only those who have the luxury of tweeting through a crisis can flourish, and everyone else waits for the barrel of the next gun to be pointed at them.