The gun debate and the victory of liberalism

Adam Chapnik
November 8, 2019

Thousands are killed every year; dozens every day; and on some days, dozens are killed in minutes. And year after year, the number of people killed by guns in the US has been increasing. Some children are now scared to go to school, and in some neighborhoods, parents forbid their children from venturing outside at night. Active-shooter drills and trainings are prevalent in schools and workplaces. Even for the least political person, it’s hard to avoid the fact that gun violence has left Americans reeling.

However, the gun control debate has revealed a divide in America between those who value personal choice and those who understand the importance of limits on individual freedoms–a split, unfortunately, that lies along partisan lines. And the sides representing each perspective are not the ones history would lead us to predict.

The Republican Party–apart from its economic libertarianism–is infamous for its fanatical obsession with social constraints, challenging the progressivism that has cemented women’s rights, legalized abortion, and normalized the LGBTQ+ community, among other achievements. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is known for embracing the social progressivism that conservatives oppose, seeking the removal of barriers on individual choice. Social limitation is therefore synonymous with Republicans, and social liberalism with Democrats. Given this dichotomy, one would expect Democrats to be trying to hamper gun control initiatives, not Republicans.  

However, it is the Democratic Party pressing for gun control: assault weapons bans, pushing back against the National Rifle Association’s political influence, and promoting universal background checks and gun buy-back programs. Prominent party figures such as Beto O’Rourke have even threatened to seize Americans’ guns. The GOP, on the other hand, objects to these efforts, denouncing the tyranny of government coercion and touting the innocence of the majority of gun owners.

Gun control legislation is of course not conditioned on bipartisanship, so it is still possible that Democrats will accomplish their goals. However, the vexing state of the contemporary gun control debate leads to a question: why is our political reality today so incongruous with its past?

Since the beginning of the Cold War (and at least until Donald Trump’s presidency), the GOP has been defined by fusionism. That is, the GOP combines the seemingly paradoxical efforts and objectives of both libertarianism and conservatism.

During the Cold War, a political coalition of these two groups made sense because of their mutual opposition to the spread of communism, and so their differences could be set aside given a more immediate goal. Clearly, this marriage was politically pragmatic, as it has lasted even until today.

Meanwhile, conservative political philosophers like Frank Meyers have made a case for the two philosophies’ interdependence. Conservatism understands the wisdom of tradition, but is blind to a logic that begins at the claim, “just because this is how it has been done doesn’t mean this is the best way forward.” This latter logic is one at which libertarians are experts, despite their repeated failure to recognize the value of tradition and fostering virtue in modern solutions. Together, the two philosophies can cover each other’s blindspots. At least that’s the theory.

But libertarianism did not abandon its socially liberal facets after the ceremony. In fact, libertarianism has a place so strongly cemented into the Republican Party that it has mutated what was once a republican platform (take Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision for America) into something closer to its own image. Neoconservatism–and its corollary, Trumpian isolationism–are the mutant creations of the marriage: one forcefully frees the world from its illiberal constraints (“we’re going to save you whether you like it or not”) and pursues global free-markets; the other exits from international obligations and free-trade agreements while limiting taxes and increasing spending. As much as self-proclaimed traditionalists might support either of these strains of conservatism, it’s hard to see what’s so traditional about either one (is it really true that Jesus Christ approved of religious crusades in his name and turning away strangers in need?).

What the mutant creations of fusionism have in common is this: the great paradox of modern Republicanism is that it can decry Drag Queen Story Hour (and other “progressive excesses”) and praise freedom of speech in the same breath. Libertarianism tells us we can be morally opposed to our fellow citizens’ actions (so long as they have no real wider impacts on others’ freedoms) but must still uphold their right to make that choice. Along those lines, Republicans have not banned DQSH–or even tried.

But, despite libertarian tenets, Republicans still push for abortion bans, bathroom bills, and even the ban on gay marriage. Underlying all of these initiatives is the appeal to the traditional individual–the unborn baby, the traditional husband and wife, the traditional man and woman. Lacking is an earnest appeal to traditional and meaningful community–exactly because such appeals would alienate the libertarian vote. The classical liberal vote is important enough to the GOP that social conservatives have agreed on “family values, but no further.”

For true traditionalists, this is a problem. A conservative who wants to reassert some traditionalist past or Higher Good is powerless in the face of a progressive culture if he (or, more realistically, his party) simultaneously upholds the right to individual choice–and for him, DQSH violates the moral fabric of our (and his) society. The Republican Party’s socially conservative attitudes (as opposed to socially conservative policies) are a relic of its shrinking traditionalism betrayed by libertarian sentiment.

There are, of course, many religious Republican voters–best represented by David French of the National Review–who say that another’s sinful misbehavior does not affect them, that DQSH is an evil they can put up with so far as they nor their family ever experiences it. (These are the voters to whom the paradox really applies). Some conservatives, like Rod Dreher, editor at the American Conservative, would point out that this common attitude is that of spirituality, and spirituality is fundamentally different from–and less meaningful than–religion. Spirituality is what you do alone in private; religion requires a community of practice–and the children of that community must adhere to that practice. DQSH threatens to corrupt Christian children’s faith and loyalty to their communities of practice, and, therefore, wherever it exists it is an existential threat to Christian communities. (This is clearly just one theological interpretation, but the fact that it is psychologically meaningful to many is enough to grant it political merit).

Another problem for social conservatives–which is likely of their own making–is that the “Moral Majority” kind of traditionalism they have for so long upheld remains bent on winning the culture war, insisting that the entire nation be their community of practice. If we define the nation as the community of practice, the nation as a whole must adhere to the same faith. Anything outside the realm of Christian practice happening within the nation is, in effect, toxifying the moral fabric, especially if it is aimed at children and has any chance of leading them astray.

This is, by definition, an illiberal vision, vis-à-vis Victor Orban of Hungary. The GOP, given its fusionist makeup, of course hesitates to pursue this end, and even the most hardline and outspoken Christian conservatives accepted among party ranks stop short of insisting on it. This just shows how, under the sway of libertarianism, the GOP has lost the ability to analyze the effect of structures of power on individuals. Just as ever-expanding sexual freedoms also threaten some traditional forms of family and community, ever-expanding gun rights not only open up new ways to defend oneself but also indirectly impose new threats.

This new conservative blindspot is not an encumbrance that must be put up with. It is not necessary for social conservatives to insist on winning over the whole country–and, at this point, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest that they change tactics.

As religious communities go, the nation is not the be-all and end-all. As long as any religious believer can stably live and work within a community of practice, the traditionalist goal can be considered accomplished. (This is the sort of thing Dreher advocates in The Benedict Option). This would be a world in which local communities are allotted the ability to explicitly decide their telos (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, secular and pluralistic, etc.) and the obligations placed upon those within each community, while individuals would be free to choose the communities they inhabit.

This is much like the case of Amish communities in the US, which for the most part have independent governing systems. And, as a teenager, Amish youth are given the opportunity (called rumspringa) to “hop around” and choose if they prefer the secular and liberal life, or that of the community into which they were born. Such a system allows for both the societal imposition of obligations and the choice of whether to be subject to those constraints.

Such a republican vision would balance the rights of the individual and the community, as it would allow for the constraint and freedom of both. It would emphasize, too, a structural view of society and power–something that Republicanism has lost under the sway of libertarianism–allowing for the party to generously consider Democratic initiatives for social constraints.

However, given the recent obsession with nationalism under Trump, it seems that for social conservatives, it’s the country or bust. Or, at least, in theory. Unfortunately for them, social libertarians will always exist, and secession will always be more likely than national conquest. No wonder they’ve found spirituality and individualistic societal analysis so persuasive.

Conservative intellectuals like Sohrab Ahmari might be bothered by the hypocrisy, but it seems that for the majority of Republican voters, their own party’s hypocrisy is irrelevant: foremost in their minds is winning (whatever that means for them). And, with its philosophical duality, the GOP can shore up the support of two very different and hard-to-reconcile voter bases, expanding its overall political influence. So, despite the objections of some, fusionism’s political viability has cemented the philosophy in the GOP’s makeup.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has never really wrestled with such internal divisions until recently. Social justice orthodoxies (for example, this and this) are beginning to take a larger hold over the party (and even over its holdouts like Bernie Sanders), and a large number of Democrats can’t stand it. There are many possible reasons for the recent divide, but even still the party’s uniting message has been the removal of social constraints.

What libertarians would call Democrats’ coercive tendencies–their promotion of big government and high taxes–Democrats justify as necessary in order to break down arbitrary social encumbrances. Libertarians for the most part can agree with the sentiment; not so much the strategy. Here, libertarians and liberals share something in common.

Unlike the conservative-turned-classical-liberal wing of the GOP (which since Reagan has become the GOP), Democrats understand the importance of big government in attaining desired social outcomes. Only a thriving administrative state can undertake the logistics of gun control policies, for example. Similarly, only a thriving administrative state can ethically roll back rights like abortion. Here, traditionalists like Ahmari and liberals share something in common.

The GOP, however, with its constant fever-dream of small government, reveals its treachery of social conservatism. Its traditionalist base is drying up, as Christianity in America becomes ever more reciprocal and comfort-centered. For them, a government which asserts the good life is one which allows its people to choose that life for themselves. How is that any kind of assertion, as our country’s culture becomes ever more fractured and our communities ever more atomized?

As Ahmari has identified, the GOP’s libertarian half has crippled its traditionalist foundations, stifling its ability to actually reassert any meaningful social constraints. Big government is necessary to assert a republican vision, but “big government” is the modern GOP’s trigger-phrase.

Classical liberalism now defines the GOP and its base, whether traditionalist conservatives like it or not. And with Trump–a man known for his infidelity and lack of religiosity–as the new center of the Republican Party, a traditionalist redefinition of its philosophy (rather than a political schism) seems ever less likely.

The GOP and the Democratic Party are commonly portrayed as opponents when it comes to social issues, but this seems no longer to be the case–especially on non-religious grounds. As a matter of fact, the two parties share an ever more socially libertarian voter-base for whom social limits in the name of traditionalism seem antiquated. The two parties’ disagreements are no longer over whether the government should impose any conception of the good life, but over whose freedoms should be prioritized.

Every progressive victory achieved by the Democrats has been justified as the removal of arbitrary encumbrances. The legalization of gay marriage, Obamacare, the expansion of transgender rights, the legalization of recreation marijuana in many states–all of these accomplishments were framed as the expansion of individual choice. Similarly, the large majority of Republican goals and achievements are framed as potential victories for the individual–tax cuts, immigration reductions, corporate deregulation, military spending increases, the removal of Obamacare, the right for a baker to refuse service to a gay couple, free speech protections.

Both parties speak a similar language of individual rights, agreeing to bracket substantive arguments about the problems that come with the “iron cage” constructed by ever-expanding freedoms (at least as long as it aids their political victories, as Democrats also complain of hate speech and Republicans still support abortion bans).

Yet, despite the parties’ general philosophical agreements, and given their historical philosophical divide, when it comes to gun control the GOP has the upper hand.

Only the Republican Party holds the political authority to propose social limits. For most voters, given the Democratic Party’s philosophical and political history, its recent proposals for social limits seem unfitting. Despite the moral virtue in doing so, when Democrats propose constraints on gun rights, they lack the track record to legitimate their efforts. For a socially libertarian electorate, it’s easy to be suspicious of this change in direction as the Democrats’ attempt to spread their coercive economic policies into the social sphere. On this path, Democrats can only capture their preexisting supporters.

As much as Democrats like Robert Kennedy or Bill Clinton have made republican cases for their proposals, these were mere outliers, as Democrats have historically framed themselves as heroes of the individual. On the whole, the Democratic Party has no philosophical foundations on which to build its new gun policies except for an attempt at moral monopolization–a losing strategy. Politics is never a fight over good versus evil; rather, it is a practical debate over differing conceptions of what is right and good and the correct procedures to arrive there. No party can claim a monopoly on morality, and most voters know this. Appealing to pathos to justify calls for gun control is a failure by the Democratic Party to do anything more than preach to the choir.

Classical liberals, on the other hand, can simultaneously appeal to their party’s traditionalist history (importantly, not their own) to gain the authority in claiming righteousness against “Democratic hypocrisy” while still promoting socially libertarian ideals (i.e. protecting individual gun rights). Deviating from their philosophical track record is necessary for Democrats to gain bipartisan support, but without a historically proven political philosophy to do so, they lack the authority necessary to attract conservatives to support them.

Nevertheless, gun control could become a political reality. Progressives could create a large enough coalition to pass their initiatives into law, but, crucially, that coalition will be strictly partisan, lacking most conservatives and libertarians from their ranks. The point here, then, is not about the future of gun control, but about the divide that the issue has revealed.

A conception of the individual as someone with obligations and social encumbrances born unto them is losing its place in both parties. Social libertarians have won the culture war: liberalism–that is, individualism–is our country’s new social and political reality. As Notre Dame University sociologist Patrick Deneen wrote in his book Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism has failed exactly because it has won, and the world it has created is not a sustainable one. Clearly this is not something to be taken for granted. We, as a nation, need to ask ourselves: is this the future we want for our country, and are the political costs worth it? And what alternative vision should replace it?

Learn more

Intercollegiate Studies Institute – Fusionism Once and Future

First Things – The New American Right

Intercollegiate Studies Institute – The Ghost of Conservatism Past

Adam Chapnik

Adam (’22) is the Senior Politics Editor. He is a Political Science major with a Mathematics correlate. He is the President of the Vassar Post-Pasteurization Alliance and is also involved in the Vassar Debate Society. He is originally from Boston and enjoys watching films, reading, and hiking.