Op-Ed: Exceptional Nation Threatens Strongmen Such As Putin

December 24, 2020

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the September 16, 2013 edition of the Columbus Dispatch.


When addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed last week, too many commentators have focused on his contempt for President Barack Obama and his policies. Enough has been said on that. I want to direct our attention to Putin’s most important point.

Putin asserted, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”

He is right, of course, even though he doesn’t understand why. Ever since 1776, American principles of freedom have been extremely dangerous to tyrants. Ever since then, no one can argue that all regimes are created equal. Some are better than others and ours is the best, and we have been singing this tune ever since, Putin’s wish to the contrary notwithstanding.

Until America was founded, no one had ever asserted the monumental fact — termed by us a self-evident truth — that human beings are capable of governing themselves.  The universal natural rights to which our Founders appealed, the principles of equality and liberty, applied to all human beings. This is what is meant by American exceptionalism.

Before the time of the Americans, ordinary human beings did not think their conditions could be changed except by accident or force.  They also did not think that their minds were good enough to know those things necessary for self-government and human happiness; they did not think their minds were free.

Of course, the kings and aristocrats encouraged such thinking. They thought they had a God-given right to rule others because they thought that they were so superior in talents and capacities — due to the better blood running in their veins — as to be able to treat the ordinary person as if he were a dog, incapable of giving his consent to be ruled or of becoming something better.

At some point (helped by the printing press and the dissemination of books) these ordinary folks began to understand that their conditions could become better, in part because they realized that they could think for themselves, that their minds were created free.  This made the conditions of human freedom possible.  The old world became a new world.

These new world folks decided to found a political order, a new regime, a Novus Ordo Seclorum (see the Great Seal of the USA) that was based on this understanding of what human beings are. They thought this to be the most revolutionary political development in human history. They thought good government could now be established based on reflection and choice, rather than accident and force.

They now knew that ordinary folks were capable — and knew themselves to be capable — of rising to the level of equality necessary for self-government. While the Founders and the Framers did not think human beings were angels, they did think they were good enough to govern themselves.  And, in theory, this applied to all human beings, not just to those who called themselves Americans. All human beings have a right to be free, including Kenyans and Hungarians and Russians.

So they constituted themselves as a new regime that would take into consideration the capacity of human beings to reflect and choose.  And even though they asserted the right of folks to govern themselves, they at the same time constituted themselves in such a way as to make their own rule over themselves as reasonable as possible. In other words, the people limited their rule by dividing their own power; they appealed to men’s reason rather than their will. Thomas Jefferson said that the rule of the majority, to be rightful, must be reasonable.

Their goal was freedom, not majority tyranny.  So the Americans consented to be a constitutional people.

Americans are an exceptional people because we saw this about human nature and formed our government accordingly. Governments are instituted to secure these rights. Government’s purpose now is to secure our God-given liberty. And, of course, it goes almost without saying that when government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.

No wonder Putin is afraid.

My Hungarian-born father once said you can live more like a human being in this country than in any other. This is why other people from different regimes still are able to note that all Americans look like they are singing when they are coming over the hill.  All human beings want to learn to sing. No wonder Putin is terrified.

Peter W. Schramm is a Senior Fellow and Ashbrook Scholar Program Director at the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.