Election 2016, Natural Rights and American Exceptionalism

Political reporters seem to enjoy the game of politics far more than the substance of issues. But recent Supreme Court rulings on the president’s health care law, campaign finance reform and other topics may force a fundamental issue into the 2016 election. Upcoming rulings on same-sex marriage, immigration and another health care case will add fuel to the fire.


The issue, at its core, is what used to be called “natural rights.” These are rights we all possess merely by being human. They don’t come from government and can’t be taken away by anybody.

In the Declaration of Independence, they were referred to as “unalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Later, some were spelled out in the Bill of Rights, including the right to freedom of religion, speech and press. We also have the right to bear arms and be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

These are the foundational ideals of our nation that the vast majority of Americans still embrace. Regardless of political affiliation or ideology, regardless of age or gender, regardless of race or ethnicity, Americans tend to believe in freedom. We think we have the right to do whatever we want with our own life so long as we don’t interfere with the rights of anybody else to do the same.

While these attitudes are wildly popular with the American people, they are seen as a problem by the political class. Whatever rights the people have place limits upon the power of government. Even more problematic for some is the system of checks and balances designed to protect individuals from a tyranny of the majority.

So, beginning about a century after our nation’s founding, political leaders began a sustained assault on the founding ideals. President Woodrow Wilson complained, “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence.” He viewed the statement of individual rights as meaningless rhetoric.

Wilson was elected in 1912, in a three-way race with incumbent President William Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. The election and its important role in shaping 20th-century America are chronicled in an excellent book by Professor Sidney M. Milkis: “Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy.”

Milkis noted that Roosevelt shared similar views to Wilson on the topic of natural rights. “In our government,” according to Roosevelt, “the question of the (SET ITAL) rights (END ITAL) of the people is not nearly as important as the question of the (SET ITAL) duties (END ITAL) of the people.”

As we head into 2016, the American people still embrace the founding ideals of freedom. The political class prefers to look at such talk as outdated nonsense. And the Supreme Court rulings have put the issues front and center.

This is a debate about the very identity of our nation. The United States has always been exceptional precisely because we believe the government exists to protect the natural rights of man.

Are we ready to abandon that exceptional legacy?

Are we a nation where the government is in charge and people have duties to serve the government? Or are we a nation where the people are in charge and have rights that government cannot take away?

Those are the questions for 2016 and beyond

Also See,

A Memorial Day Reflection on Equality

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