Who is Vladimir Putin to tell Americans they’re not exceptional?
That was a general, bipartisan reaction in the nation’s capital and US politics in general on Friday to Russian President Putin’s controversial Thursday opinion piece in the New York Times.
Putin’s piece was a lengthy argument against any US strike on Syria and against the general US practice of intervention overseas. Parts of the article were bluster, such as his assertion that it was Syrian rebels who carried out the alleged chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21, not the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Parts were unexceptional, in the sense that they repeated arguments made by domestic critics of a possible US military action in Syria.
But the words of Putin that really roiled the nation’s capital were at the end, tacked on in a manner that almost seemed an afterthought. They were a direct response to President Obama, who in his Tuesday night speech to the nation referred to America as “exceptional”.
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional ... we must not forget that God created us equal,” Putin wrote.
Game on, Vladimir.
First up was White House spokesman Jay Carney, who quickly defended the president’s exceptionalism assertion.
“Russia offers a stark contrast that demonstrates why America is exceptional,” said Mr. Carney. “Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world. And we believe that global security is advanced when children cannot be gassed to death by a dictator.”
Members of Congress were quick to wave the exceptionalism flag. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a presumed 2016 presidential hopeful, penned his own opinion piece for Time Magazine as to why the US is exceptional.
The US sense that it is different, wrote Senator Paul, is rooted in the nation’s founding values and documents, particularly the Constitution. US constitutional checks and balances have been on full display in recent days, wrote the Kentucky senator, as President Obama has turned to Congress for a vote authorizing military action in Syria, which Paul opposes.
“While Putin is correct that God created every human being as an equal in His eyes, clearly the results of each of our efforts on this earth, individually and collectively, are not equal,” wrote Paul.
Many commentators pointed to the Constitution and guaranteed US rights as exceptional, noting almost without exception that in Russia those rights have proved fungible over the years.
In Russia, gays and lesbians face officially sanctioned discrimination and anti-Putin journalists risk dismissal, or worse. But in the US, the First Amendment guarantees free speech and a free press, noted the right-leaning web site Red Alert Politics.
“Which ultimately is why we’re OK with the President of Russia publishing an op-ed hating on American exceptionalism in an American newspaper,” wrote Chris Deaton, Red Alert Politics managing editor.
To some extent, Putin’s jab at the US sense of itself may reflect Russia’s bitterness about its fall from superpower glory and America’s relative military and economic strength.
Russia’s “policy is, in many ways, a resentment-based policy. So if Obama embraces exceptionalism, he’s going to attack it,” said Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, in an appearance on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper.
The US has indeed done exceptional things, Mr. Goldberg argued.
“We defeated fascism and communism in a single century, that’s pretty exceptional,” he told Tapper.
Broadly speaking, American exceptionalism is not a new phenomenon. US citizens have considered themselves uniquely favored since the beginning of the Republic.
During the nation’s early years, the US populations was generally young and fast-growing. Many citizens were freeholders or landowners, and enjoyed a high standard of living compared to Europe, writes the eminent US historian Gordon Wood in “Empire of Liberty." Their sense of themselves as somehow purer than the Old World in a political sense was intense.
They may have lagged other nations in the fine arts but in agriculture, commerce, and government they felt themselves superior. “In this respect, America is infinitely further removed from Barbarity, than Europe,” wrote John Adams in 1780.
Fast forward to 1929. US communist leader Jay Lovestone reported to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that the American proletariat, generally individualist and middle class, wasn’t interested in a revolution of the workers.
Stalin responded by demanding an end to this “heresy of American exceptionalism," and an expression was born, according to a history of the phrase by Terrence McCoy in the Atlantic.
In the 1960s “exceptionalism” began to explicitly crop up in American political discourse as the Republican Party emphasized patriotism to win over a new crop of southern voters. But given continued US pride in the nation’s history and Constitution, this was one issue on which Democrats were determined to not be outflanked.
“American exceptionalism, along with flag pins shining from one’s lapel, is one of the rare issues where Republicans and Democrats agree,” wrote McCoy in 2012.
Thus, Putin hit a nerve. It’s not an accident that many US late night comedians focused on the Russian leader’s criticism of exceptionalism in their Thursday routines.
Putin must not get that America is a land of unique freedoms, and also unique sculptures of iconic musicians crafted entirely from foodstuffs, said Jon Stewart on the “Daily Show," in a segment dubbed, "Vlad the insulter."
“What part of ‘butter Elvis’ do you not understand?’ said Mr. Stewart,