Is the Problem “American Exceptionalism”, or Something Else?

At Foreign Policy, Jeremy Konyndyk has a very interesting article about the U.S.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s arguably the best synopsis to date of the policy failures in the U.S., and it’s definitely worth the read. In it, he argues that American Exceptionalism is to blame for the poor response to COVID-19 by the U.S. (boldface mine):

The catastrophic U.S. response to COVID-19 is not primarily the result of scientific or medical deficiencies. Rather, it is the product of an insularity in U.S. politics and culture. American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States is unique among nations and that the American way is invariably the best—has blinded the country’s leaders (and many of its citizens) to potentially lifesaving lessons from other countries. The dark side of American exceptionalism is “hubris and closed-mindedness, and . . . ignorance about the rest of the world,” the eminent American historian Eric Foner has argued. “Since the United States is so exceptional, there is no point in learning about other societies.” That mentality is now costing American lives.

American exceptionalism finds its most recent and fervent expression in President Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and policies. But the belief in exceptionalism isn’t confined to the White House. It is hardwired into American politics and society, and it explains many of the United States’ failures in combating COVID-19. Congress, many states, and the private sector all disregarded lessons from countries that had faced the coronavirus earlier. American officials are now offering the public a brutal choice—between preventing more deaths or reopening the economy—that few other countries have foisted on their people. U.S. leaders could have borrowed lessons from the successes of other nations. Ignoring them has yielded only staggering levels of sickness, death, and economic devastation…

It is likely that earlier and more explicit warnings from the federal government would have helped awaken U.S. society to the threat of the virus. But it is still incredible that so many leaders and institutions ignored the reality of the coming outbreak. U.S. corporations span the globe; the U.S. stock market is intimately linked with the world at large; New York City is a deeply interconnected, international hub. But leaders across American society imagined that somehow the United States would be spared the ravages of the disease.

An outbreak of some magnitude in the United States was inevitable, but the country’s leaders did not reckon with that inevitability. The official reluctance to spend February preparing for the virus was a deliberate and catastrophic choice—one that stemmed from incompetence but also from irrational confidence in the United States’ capabilities compared with other nations. And the failure to consider how other countries had either struggled or succeeded in grappling with the disease would set the stage for what followed.

Here’s the thing: consider the counterfactual of a President Clinton (or, for that matter, a President Sanders). While some of the same mistakes would have been made (Clinton shouldn’t be thought responsible for flawed PCR primer development any more than Trump should be), it’s hard to believe that the response would have been as bad. If nothing else, the utter willful ignorance of the problem stemming from Trump’s narcissism wouldn’t have occurred–and once the administration did decide to mount a response, the executive branch response would have been more competent and unified (we’ll discuss the legislative branch in a bit). Leadership matters, as Konyndyk hints at:

All of these steps are essential to protecting Americans, and all of them require a kind of globally engaged U.S. response to the pandemic that Trump seems incapable of delivering. If the United States cannot adapt its approach to reflect lessons learned from around the world, it risks an indefinite limbo of intolerable mortality levels and sustained economic stagnation. Breaking out of that limbo will entail first breaking out of the insular mentality that sees the United States as exceptional and holds it apart from the rest of the world.

The largest problem for a Democratic administration would have been a Mitch McConnell led Senate. Given his history, there is no reason to doubt he would choose politics over saving lives. And even former Trump administration officials were unable to convince Republican lawmakers:

When Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, delivered an urgent warning to Republicans in Congress in early March, many legislators dismissed him as unduly alarmist.

I’m under no illusions that a Democratic response would have been excellent, especially given both the long-term structural problems of our public health infrastructure and the response by some Democratic executive branch leaders to COVID-19 ([cough] Cuomo [cough] DeBlasio [cough]). But it seems that American Exceptionalism is less to blame than a political party which does not believe in governing (except for ensuring a Well-Regulated Vagina), and, when forced to govern, has shown time and time again that it is unable to do so (Got Hurricane Katrina?).

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