David Brooks is back on his bullshit. Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, the New York Times columnist has become an outspoken proponent of ideologically vacant centrism as the one and only solution to toxic partisanship and intractable tribalism. The fact that “the center” of Brooks’ dreams has no political appeal, no coherent philosophy, and no agenda beyond tongue-clucking rebukes of partisanship is of no concern to him; it can and will fix everything simply by scolding everyone in Washington to be polite to one another.
Brooks’ ridiculous faith in this feeble worldview animates his column this morning on gun regulation. Under the impossible-to-parody headline “Respect First, Then Gun Control,” Brooks argues that the way to prevent more gun massacres like the one that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, is for proponents of stricter gun laws to show unlimited deference to gun-rights extremists and cede them control of the legislative agenda:
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.
So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.
It feels almost gratuitous to critique this passage given how self-evidently devastating it is to Brooks’ ridiculous centrist fetish. Here we see Brooks attempt to confront the gravely serious and deadly problem of gun violence, and his paramount concerns are: 1) the reputations of elites such as himself, 2) the civility of public discourse, and 3) “compromise.” What would that compromise look like? Brooks has no idea and makes no attempt to work it out. That’s because he doesn’t actually care -- compromise for the sake of compromise is the goal, the details don’t matter.
This is also the absolute worst political advice one could offer to someone who wants to clamp down on gun violence. Brooks’ strategy for success is for the most vocal and committed proponents of gun restrictions to keep quiet and fade into the background so “Red America” can take the lead on implementing their agenda. His rationale for this course of action is that the outrage felt by “Red America” over perceived threats to “their culture” must be the first consideration, and should be shown greater deference than outrage felt over dead schoolchildren. This is completely backwards and demonstrates appalling ignorance of how political change happens.
The “culture” of maximalist gun rights that casts even the slightest move toward gun regulation as a tyrannical assault on freedom is the product of intense and effective activism by gun-rights extremists. That “culture” is toxic and actively impedes all good-faith efforts to address gun violence -- Congress has done nothing in response to horrific massacres and violent attacks on its own members because Republicans have decided that escalating body counts are less politically threatening to them than gun-rights activists. “Red America” has been “leading the way” on gun regulation for a long time, and look where it’s gotten us.
The fact that Brooks views this rotten “culture” not as a problem to be fixed but as a totem to be respected is a testament to how powerful uncompromising political activism is (and how stupid Brooks is).
The key to passing better gun laws isn’t to be unfailingly polite and deferential to the politicians and poisonous culture that brought us to our current blood-soaked state of affairs in the vague hope that they will someday allow a “compromise.” If bad lawmakers make any meaningful federal gun legislation impossible, the solution is to insist on better lawmakers. The only way to do that is through sustained and vocal activism of the sort David Brooks finds so very rude and counterproductive.