Donald Trump has long openly embraced his nationalism. But on Thursday he took it to a whole new level. In his speech at the White House conference on American history, he attacked “the liberal indoctrination of America’s youth” – a standard trope for any Republican speech these days – and said he would set up a commission to introduce “patriotic education” that would develop a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history”.
Still, this is hardly surprising. Trump is a far-right politician and chauvinistic nationalism is part and parcel of far-right ideology. What makes the US so exceptional is that patriotism, and even chauvinism, is shared across the political spectrum. All US presidents are keen on saying the US is the greatest country in the world, if not in world history. It is one of the few things Republicans and Democrats tend to agree on.
Like many progressive foreigners who moved to the US, I have been amazed by the patriotism of the left in this country. Where most west European progressives abhor flag-waving and patriotism, let alone chauvinism, many American progressives proudly wrap themselves in the stars and stripes and attack Trump for not being patriotic enough. In a particularly bizarre twist, the 2016 election involved a uniquely US-critical far-right candidate defeating a proudly patriotic center-left candidate.
Joe Biden is fond of playing the patriotism card. “We are by far the greatest, powerful, decent nation in the world,” he told the audience at his Greensboro rally earlier this week. This might sound like a harmless campaign strategy, but it is both politically and strategically wrong. The US is not the greatest country in world history, or even the world at this moment, according to almost all meaningful indicators.
American politicians (and citizens) are fond of stressing they are both the oldest and the greatest democracy in the world. The myth of “we the people” is instilled in Americans from an early age. Yet the US was founded on racism and racial exclusion. Even if the US was the most democratic country in the late 18th and early 19th century, it was “the most democratic” in the way that apartheid South Africa was the “most democratic” country in Africa in the early 20th century.
It is exactly because the US is not the greatest country in the world that the task of the Democrats is so vast and so important
Even today, the US democratic system has many formal and informal flaws that few European countries, among others, share. I know of no country where the person who loses the popular vote can win the presidency. And US gerrymandering is not even rivaled by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Not to speak of the “tidal wave of voter suppression” that affects almost every state, and has affected much of the south since the end of the civil war.
But even in terms of the most basic economic indicators, which are cherished so much by many Americans, the US is not the greatest country in the world. Luxembourg has the highest GDP per capita, almost twice as high as the US, which ranks eighth. In terms of its Gini coefficient, an important indicator of economic inequality, the US ranks 51st – sandwiched between Djibouti (50) and the Ivory Coast (52). On many other indicators of development, like corruption (23), education (26) and healthcare (30), the US also scores far below a long list of other countries. No wonder Americans are only the 19th happiest people in the world.
Democrats feel the need to constantly prove that they love America, in order to pre-empt constant accusations by rightwing media and politicians that the left is unpatriotic or even traitorous. The irony is that Americans on average seem to be much more realistic than their leaders. Not even a majority of Republicans think that the US “stands above all other countries”, according to a 2017 poll.
This kind of patriotic boosterism doesn’t stop when Democrats are in the White House. Barack Obama was not just the personification of the “American Dream,” he went around the world praising “American exceptionalism” and calling the US “the greatest nation on earth”.
By declaring the US the greatest country in the world, Democratic politicians not only spread misinformation, they also hinder their own work. In fact, many of the struggles of American progressives are for goals long ago achieved in most European countries: healthcare for all, decent abortion provisions, strict gun laws, affordable education, et cetera.
It is exactly because the US is not the greatest country in the world that the task of the Democrats is so vast and so important. This country needs to finally start to live up to its own promise and propaganda. But to do so, it doesn’t need reform and mere tinkering on the edges; it needs a full transformation, including of most of its important cultural, economic and political institutions. And to achieve this, it is important that people know how much still needs to be done.
In other words, to make America the greatest country in the world, Democrats have to tell the American people they are not, and never have been, the greatest country in the world.
Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the new podcast Radikaal