WASHINGTON — Following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, a “smoldering” (as one commentator put it) President Obama gave a revealing speech — a clarification, a culmination, of much that had come before. “What has become routine,” he said, “of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of commonsense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out. ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. … Does anybody believe that?” “This is a political choice we make,” he claimed, “to allow this to happen every few months in America.”
The president’s frustration, after delivering a sad series of similar speeches, is understandable. But his argument is still indefensible.
Even if you support “commonsense gun legislation” (as I do), there was nothing in Obama’s speech that effectively argued for it. No policy proposals or serious justifications. No one listening to the speech would be persuaded to take a position he or she did not already hold. Obama was saying, in essence, that it is obvious what we should do about mass gun violence, that evil people are blocking it, and that they have innocent blood on their hands.
This is apparently what some liberal people think when anger releases them from civility and rationality. Obama speaks as if the gun laws he wants passed would put an end to these killings — a position for which there is no evidence. I believe that more thorough background checks and further restrictions on the type and firepower of weapons, along with improved health services for the severely mentally ill, would be good for our society, apart from mass killings. I hope that, in the long term, this system might, just might, intervene before a prospective mass killer strikes (though such causality would be very hard to demonstrate). But I have no basis for the calumny that people who disagree with me are choosing to allow mass murder.
This is the politics of moral posturing, not an argument rooted in social science. With his last election behind him, Obama is free to be Obama. And it appears that he is, deep down, a liberal commentator of the MSNBC variety — perhaps providing a preview of his post-presidency. The only apparent purpose of his gun speech was to incite the faithful by expressing a seething arrogance.
Obama would surely blame the other side for the sorry state of our politics. Didn’t Mitch McConnell have it out for him from the beginning? Hasn’t every attempted compromise been slapped away?
But it matters when the president of the United States decides that democratic persuasion is a fool’s game. It encourages the kind of will-to-power politics we see on the left and right. In this view, opponents are evil — entirely beyond the normal instruments of reason and good faith. So the only option is the collection and exercise of power.
When the main players in our politics give up on deliberative democracy, it feels like some Rubicon is being crossed. Our system is designed for leaders who make arguments for their views, seek compromise and try different policy angles to break logjams. And when they lose, their proper recourse is … to make more arguments, seek other compromises and try different policy angles.
At this time, gun control legislation would probably not pass. Because such a law would not directly prevent mass murders (even if the law had useful purposes). Because Obama doesn’t know how to work with Congress. Because the National Rifle Association would oppose it. Because the political environment is not right. But someone who supports gun control should still argue for it, because that is what we do in a democracy.
The spirit of our democracy is very much at issue. Donald Trump says we have a corrupt system run by stupid people. Obama says we have a corrupt system run by evil people. Both of them are part of the same problem. I really don’t give a damn if they are disillusioned and fed up with democratic processes or not. If they are tired of the game, they should stop playing it, not engage in ideological commentary or entertain fantasies of personal rule.
The best way to restore faith in our democratic structures is to spend a lifetime trying to make them work, like Hubert Humphrey did, or Jack Kemp did, or Henry Jackson did, or Ronald Reagan did, or Ted Kennedy did. But it is easier, and surely satisfying in its own way, to throw a tantrum when democracy disappoints you.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.
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