Like most Americans, I have always considered the United States an exceptional country.

We possess a political system built on giving voice to ordinary people and a Constitution that favors finding common ground among them. Our economy, at its best, rewards innovation and makes it possible for people from humble circumstances to thrive.

Our civic spirit over the long haul has pointed us toward tolerance, civil rights, and participation in public life.

Recently, there has been a spate of public musing about “the end of American exceptionalism.” That’s because the coronavirus has laid bare a country fumbling for a response. Yet even before this crisis, there was reason to question whether the US truly remains exceptional.

Let’s take a quick tour. In education, for instance, the OECD ranked the US as sixth most-educated in 2018; Canada came first. We do even worse on student test scores for reading, math, and science, where the US in 2018 ranked 36th in math and 17th in reading.

There was a time when our infrastructure was the envy of the world. Now it’s Singapore, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong; we’re not even in the top ten.

In health care, World Population Review ranks us 37th.

On a broad ranking of quality of life—that is, which countries offer the best chances for a healthy, safe, and prosperous life ahead—you’d want to be in Denmark, Switzerland, or Finland; on the Bloomberg “Healthiest Country” index, the US didn’t make the top 20. In fact, in a separate look at life expectancy in the 36 OECD countries, we rank 29th.

I don’t want to make your eyes glaze over. But feel free to go online and search for “country rankings by” whatever you’re curious about. What you’ll find is a mixed picture of the US.

The pandemic didn’t rob us of our “exceptional” status. We’ve been doing that all on our own for years.

Not long ago, the writer Fintan O’Toole had a widely read piece in which he said, “However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans.”

When I read articles like that, I think they miss a key point. I don’t feel sorry for us. Because what I said at the beginning of this commentary still holds true: our political system, our economic potential, and our civic spirit remain the cornerstones of a great nation.

We have a choice.

We can continue to lose ground globally. But if we choose to build and strive to reach our potential, we can become, without doubt, truly exceptional again.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Opinions are his own.

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