Ever go to a high school or college reunion where middle-aged people unhappy with their lives try to relive the glory days?
That's kind of what's happening in this year's presidential campaign. At the Republican National Convention, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made an impassioned case for American exceptionalism, which she described as "a belief in opportunity and a constant battle—long and hard—to extend the benefits of the American Dream to all."
Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan followed that up by recalling earlier days when he used to wait tables or mow lawns for a few bucks. "I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself," Ryan said. "That's what we do in this country. That's the American Dream."
For Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, American exceptionalism is a cornerstone of his entire political philosophy. In his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness, Romney professed his belief that the United States enjoys "the protection of Providence" and must heed a special calling to serve as the world's guarantor of freedom. And Romney regularly accuses his Democratic opponent, President Obama, of being an apologist who is insufficiently committed to the idea of American exceptionalism.
Rah rah. The only problem with the "We're No. 1" mantra is that by many measures of national achievement, America doesn't seem so exceptional anymore. It is still one of the world's richest nations, for instance, but 13 nations have higher GDP per capita, including Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and several Scandinavian countries. A decade ago, only four nations had higher levels, according to World Bank data. U.S. economic output is still increasing (with a break during the 2007-2009 recession), it's just not rising as fast as in a bunch of other countries.
China's economy will almost certainly eclipse America's as the world's biggest over the next few years. That's not surprising, since China has four times the population of the United States and its economy is growing rapidly. Plus, per-capita income in China is still barely one-tenth what it is in the United States. But if being No. 1, matters, then the United States will matter a little bit less in the future.
Our education system is mediocre. Compared to about 65 other countries, American 15-year-olds rank in the middle on reading and science know-how, and below average on math, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. educational standards have been sliding for years, which suggests it's a downward national trend unrelated to Democratic or Republican policies in Washington.
As for living standards, the United States ranks 10th on the London-based Legatum Institute's world prosperity index, out of 110 countries. Not bad, but that's down from fourth in 2008. Six European countries, plus Canada, Australia, and New Zealand rank ahead of the United States.
In 2008, the United States ranked No. 1 in global competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum. Now it's No. 5. Critics of Obama's policies could easily blame him for the decline, but the WEF faults just about everybody in Washington. "Some aspects of the United States' institutional environment continue to raise concern among business leaders, particularly related to low public trust in politicians and concerns about government inefficiency," the WEF said in its latest report.
The United States spends far more money than any other nation on healthcare—even on a per capita basis—but gets worse results. The average U.S. life expectancy of 70 ranks 27th, according to Legatum. America ranks 36th in infant mortality and 60th in the incidence of respiratory disease. It's also the most obese country on earth. The United States is doing better by other measures, but it's the one of the few nations in the world with healthcare costs that are so high they threaten to swamp the entire economy.
American universities are the envy of the world, but they're also becoming so expensive that the cost of a college education for a couple of kids can drown a middle-class family in debt. The exploding cost of education and healthcare is one of the biggest reasons ordinary families are falling behind.
There are still plenty of other areas in which America excels. The U.S. military is the world's biggest, by far, and more than that, it's highly professional, thoroughly effective, and widely admired. Silicon Valley and other technology hubs around the United States continue to lead the world in new business ideas and the funding to execute them. Chicago hot dogs and Memphis barbecue aren't shabby either.
But the most exceptional thing about America these days may be the extent to which it's coasting on accomplishments of the past. That can't last too much longer. Maybe it's time to stop talking about how great we used to be, and start teeing up some fresh achievements.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.