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Why is the mighty USA still so backward in so many ways?

What do Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Germany and the UK have in common? All have elected female heads of state or government. Dozens of other countries, from India to Israel, from Zambia to Pakistan, have had female leaders. Yet the most powerful country in the world, the United States, has yet to do so.

Not for nothing is the 20th century considered to have belonged to America. Once the US dominated culture, science, technology, diplomacy, academia and just about every other field too. Everyone looked to the US for inspiration, although the US never looked back.

When it comes to foreign capitals, like Paris, London or Rome, Americans find them pleasant places to visit. Ireland makes Irish-Americans nostalgic, the UK is still seen as quaint, and they love our Royal Family. But most Americans aren’t much interested in what the rest of the world has to offer.

In the past, where the US went, the world followed. No other nation, not Russia or China, had such global influence. But over the past few decades, much of that influence has been squandered. The 21st century tells a different story.

Though US hasn’t had a female president, the closest it will come is Kamala Harris. Next month she will become the first woman to be Vice President in the country’s 244-year history. Harris ticks a lot of other boxes, too. She spent some of her formative years in more socially progressive Canada, where her Indian-born mother worked as a scientist in Montreal researching breast cancer.

Compared to its northern neighbour, the UK or the EU, the US seems a generation behind. Liberals may be congratulating themselves on Biden’s appointment of “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary, who will be the first openly gay politician to serve in a US Cabinet. But the first in the UK was Chris (now Lord) Smith, who joined Blair’s Cabinet as long ago as 1997.

Janet Yellen is the first woman to be Treasury Secretary, and she was also the first to head the Federal Reserve under Obama. His history-making inner circle had seven women, nine from minorities and only eight white men. But Ms Yellen is now 74. 

In the last 70 years, only eleven presidents have named women to cabinet-level positions. In the Council on Foreign Relations Women’s Power Index, the US scores just 17 out of 100 when it comes to female representation in government.

The first elected female head of state is generally considered to be Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who led Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from 1960. Margaret Thatcher was elected as British Prime Minister in 1979, and Angela Merkel has been Germany’s Chancellor since 2005.

When it comes to other liberal values, the US also lags far behind. By the time Donald Trump leaves office, it is estimated that he will have executed more Death Row prisoners than any other US President in a century — quite a shameful legacy. No other Western nation even allows execution.

Out of ten countries, the US ranks sixth when it comes to killing prisoners. It is estimated that China, in pole position, executes thousands, and Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the global count. Not great bedfellows for a nation that sees itself as the homeland of liberty and democracy.

According to Amnesty International, 142 nations do not execute people. How is it possible, then, that the US allows this to happen in thirty states? Especially as DNA testing has proved that a surprising number of Death Row prisoners were wrongfully convicted, and in a land whose founding principle was to be a guiding light?

The US is also an outlier compared to other progressive, prosperous, democracies in that tens of millions of its citizens don’t have healthcare insurance. It certainly is a critical factor that divides Canada and the US. The right to universal healthcare is common to the UK and the EU, despite Brexit.

America’s individualism has never been able to embrace this right, which many Americans denigrate as “socialised medicine”. Yet other western nations take it as a given. Despite the flaws of the various systems of insurance or taxpayer funding, no country seriously considers abandoning the principle. Universal healthcare is envied by US citizens who have no access to it.

Healthcare for all may have been something that seeped into Harris’s bones when she was at high school in Montreal. We’ll see what the new duo will be able to do in the US. There, change happens at a glacial pace. Maybe, just for once, America needs to follow the example of the rest of the West?