„Americans believe that they live in the best country in the world. To what degree are Americans self-critical?“
Americans identify with their country personally. In a way they believe that if America is good, they are good. If bad, they are bad. If strong, they are strong. If weak, they are weak.
Americans identify with their country also because they are consciously or unconsciously aware that what America is, does, stands for, is a result of what Americans choose, have chosen, will choose. As a democracy, the people are responsible for themselves, for their country. They cannot „point the finger“ at a despot, king, or dictator. Nor do Americans believe in mysterious, deeper-lying forces, over which they have little to no control, which determine their fate.
All Americans, with the exception of the native Americans, are immigrants or recent descendents of immigrants. And as a nation of immigrants, Americans have chosen America. America is what they make of it. They have taken the risk, made the leap, decided to strive for a better life, or at least a different life. If they are unhappy, disappointed, if life has not lived up to their expectations, they tend to place the blame on themselves.
Objectively, Americans have evidence that American is the best country in the world, or at least among the very best. It is geographically a very large country rich in natural resources. The American economic system offers great opportunities to improve one‘s material well-being. Millions of people have come to America over the last two hundred years and established a healthy, safe and prosperous life for themselves, their families and descendents.
The American political system offers a very high degree of freedom to live life the way one freely chooses. One could argue that no other country guarantees the same degree of individual freedom. The fact that so many peoples, from so many different countries, have been able to live together to a fairly high degree of harmony attests to the stability of the American political system.
America has defended itself successfully against outside attack. Protected by two large oceans, with neighbors to the north and south who have never posed any kind of threat, but instead are very close trading partner, Americans have been able to live in safety and security, to grow and develop as a nation for over two hundred years without the kinds of crises which have damaged other regions in the world such as Europe, Africa and Asia.
In addition, America has been the dominant military and economic power in the West since 1945, was on the victorious side of the two world wars and the forty-year Cold War. Its achievements in the science, arts, in athletics and in industry and commerce have been well-documented. Americans and the American system reward achievement.
For all of the superlatives about America and Americans, however, there is much which is not optimal, not good, certainly not the best. Crime in the United States is very high. In many parts of the country one cannot move about without fear, whether it be women at night or young men in certain urban neighborhoods.
The American health care system is not only extraordinarily expensive, dragging on America‘s economic strength, it in many ways produces inadeqate outcomes. From the European perspective the American social safety net is torn at the seams, allowing an astonishingly high number of Americans to become poor, alone and without hope.
The illiteracy rate in the U.S. is shamefully high for such an advanced industrial country. And there is far stronger interest, and personal investment, in popular versus classical culture. Baseball beats Beethoven, video games beat literature, violence in movies beats complexity and sophistication.
Americans are also know to work very long hours. Paid vacations – if offered at all – tend to be only two to four weeks per year, giving workers little opportunity to rest, relax and spend time with their families.
So why is it that many, if not most, Americans believe that they live in the best country in the world?
Partly it is, as stated above, based on their self-identification with their country. Partly it is based on the many, objective and relevant realities that America is a great country. Perhaps many of the downsides, the negatives, of America are not critical, not important, in their eyes. Americans often have little sympathy for those who have not succeeded in the U.S. Their sentiment is: „They had their chance, but did not take advantage of it. Their fault.“
Finally, but not conclusively, perhaps many Americans are simply so poorly informed about life in other countries that they cannot judge how well, or not so well, they are doing. Without comparisons it is difficult to maintain a balanced perspective. Germans certainly have every reason to question the American assumption that the United States is the best country in the world.