The United States becomes a “developing country” in the world rankings that measure democracy and inequality

By Kathleen Fridl, Johns Hopkins University [This article first appeared in The Conversation, republished with permission]

The United States can consider itself a “leader of the free worldbut a development index released in July 2022 puts the country much further down the list.

In its global ranking, the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development dropped the United States to the 41st worldwide, down from its previous ranking of 32nd. According to this methodology — an expansive model of 17 categories, or “goals,” many of which focus on the environment and equity — the United States ranks between Cuba and Bulgaria. Both are widely considered developing countries.

The United States is also now considered a “flawed democracy”, according to The Economist’s Democracy Index.

As a political historian who studies the United States institutional development, I recognize these dismal ratings as the inevitable result of two problems. Racism has deprived many Americans of the health care, education, economic security and environment they deserve. At the same time, as threats to democracy grow more serious, a devotion to “American exceptionalism” prevents the country from candidly assessing and correcting its course.

“The Other America”

The Office of Sustainable Development rankings differ from more traditional development measures in that they focus more on the experiences of ordinary people, including their ability to enjoy clean air and water, than on the wealth creation.

So if the gigantic size of the US economy matters in its score, so does the unequal access to the wealth it produces. When judged by accepted measures like the Gini coefficient, income inequality in the United States has increased markedly over the past 30 years. Speak Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development measurethe United States has the largest wealth gap among the G-7 countries.

These results reflect structural disparities in the United States, which are more pronounced for African Americans. Such differences persisted long after the demise of chattel slavery and the repeal of Jim Crow laws.

Researcher WEB Du Bois first exposed this type of structural inequality in his 1899 analysis of black life in the urban north, “The Philadelphia Negro.” Although he noted distinctions of wealth and status within black society, Du Bois found African American life to be a world apart from white residents: a “city within a city.” Du Bois attributed the high rates of poverty, crime, and illiteracy prevalent in Philadelphia’s black community to discrimination, disinvestment, and residential segregation—not to the degree of ambition or talent of black people.

More than half a century later, with characteristic eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr. described in the same way the persistence of “the other America”, where “the dynamism of hope” has turned into “the fatigue of despair”.

To illustrate his point, King referred to many of the same factors studied by Du Bois: housing status and household wealth, education, social mobility and literacy rates, health and employment. Of all these indicators, Black Americans fared less well than whites. But as King noted, “A lot of people from various backgrounds live in this other America.”

The developmental benchmarks invoked by these men were also featured prominently in the 1962 book “The other America», by the political scientist Michael Harrington, Founder of a group that eventually became the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington’s work so disturbed President John F. Kennedy that he reportedly galvanized it to formulate a “war on poverty”.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, waged this metaphorical war. But the poverty linked to discrete places. Rural areas and segregated neighborhoods remained impoverished well beyond federal efforts in the mid-twentieth century.

This is largely because federal efforts during this critical time have welcomed rather than confronted the forces of racism, according to my research.

In a number of policy areas, the sustained efforts of segregationist Democrats in Congress have resulted in an incomplete and disparate system of social policy. Southern Democrats cooperated with Republicans to doom efforts to achieve universal Health care Where unionized workforce. Rejecting proposals for strong federal intervention, they left a checkered legacy of local education funding and public health.

Now, many years later, the effects of a racially-friendly welfare state can be seen — though perhaps less visibly — in the inadequacy health policies drive a shocking decline in the average American life expectancy.

Decline of democracy

There are other ways to measure a country’s level of development, and for some of them, the United States fares better.

The United States currently ranks 21st on United Nations Development Program Index, which measures fewer factors than the sustainability index. Good results in terms of average income per person – $64,765 – and an average of 13.7 years of schooling place the United States squarely in the developed world.

However, its ranking suffers from assessments that give more weight to political systems.

The Economist democracy index now includes the United States among the “imperfect democracies”, with an overall score that is between Estonia and Chile. It is not a top-notch “full democracy”, largely because of a fractured political culture. This growing divide is most apparent in the divergent paths between the “red” and “blue” states.

Although The Economist analysts applaud the peaceful handover of power in the face of a insurrection intended to disrupt this, their report deplores that, according to a January 2022 poll, “only 55% of Americans believe Mr. Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”

Electoral negationism carries with it the threat that election officials in Republican-controlled jurisdictions will reject or alter vote counts that do not favor the Republican Party in upcoming elections, further hurting the United States’ score on the Democracy Index.

Red and Blue America also differ on access to modern reproductive care for women. It hurts the gender equality rating in the United States, one aspect of the United Nations Sustainable Development Index.

Since Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican-controlled states adopted or roughly proposed restrictive abortion lawsAt point endanger a woman’s health.

I believe that, when coupled with structural inequality and fractured social policy, waning Republican commitment to democracy lends weight to the classification of the United States as a developing country.

American exceptionalism

To remedy the poor performance of the United States in various global surveys, one must also come to terms with the idea of American exceptionalisma belief in American superiority over the rest of the world.

Both political parties have long promoted this belief, at home and abroad, but “exceptionalism” is getting more formal treatment from Republicans. It was the front line of the Republican Party’s national platform of 2016 and 2020 (“we believe in American exceptionalism”). And it served as the organizing principle behind Donald Trump’s vow to restore “patriotic educationto American schools.

In Florida, after lobbying by Republican Governor Ron DeSantisthe state board of education in July 2022 approved standards rooted in American exceptionalism while banning teaching in critical race theoryan academic framework teaching the kind of structural racism that Du Bois exposed long ago.

With a tendency to proclaim excellence rather than pursue it, the peddling of American exceptionalism encourages Americans to maintain a strong sense of national accomplishment — despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Kathleen FridlSachs Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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