Liberal commentators make a lot of hay out of lambasting conservatives for their urge to purge apostates from the ranks of the Republican Party. Normally, I don’t mind. But Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy has exposed similar urges among mainstream liberals.
The senator from Vermont identifies himself as the only democratic socialist in the U.S. Congress. He has called for breaking up the big banks, for easing drug laws, and for expanding social-insurance programs. In May, he introduced a bill that would impose a tax on Wall Street transactions to make college tuition obsolete.
But Sanders is also an ardent defender of the Second Amendment. This, according to elite liberals’ opinion, does not compute. The implication of their argument is that Sanders is at odds with the values and priorities of the Democratic base. Indeed, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern appeared downright worried that his economic populism might seduce unsuspecting liberals: “Before liberal Democrats flock to Sanders, they should remember that the Vermont senator stands firmly to Clinton’s right on one issue of overwhelming importance to the Democratic base: gun control.”
Steven Benen, a blogger for MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” was more sanguine, however: “It’s probably safe to say that Sanders will be to Clinton’s left on most issues in their primary fight, except when it comes to guns. To understand why, it’s important to realize that Vermont has some of the most lax gun laws in the nation, in large part because gun violence in the Green Mountain State is so low.”
Sanders’s record on gun legislation is somewhat mixed. He used to be a National Rifle Association candidate of choice, but these days, given his support for tepid gun-control measures, he’s persona non grata with the NRA. Even so, Sanders has been opposed for the most part to greater government oversight of ownership and sale of firearms. During his long tenure in Congress—for 16 years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2006—Sanders opposed universal background checks, and after the Sandy Hook killings in 2012 he said that even the strongest gun-control law would not have prevented a massacre of innocents.
What got Mark Joseph Stern’s back up was Sanders’s support of tort reform in favor of firearms manufacturers. In 2005, he voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunized gun makers against liability claims. As Stern writes: “It is one of the most noxious pieces of pro-gun legislation ever passed. And Bernie Sanders voted for it.”
I agree with Stern. And I disagree with much of Sanders’s opposition to gun control. But my point here isn’t to evaluate Sanders’s votes, it’s to examine how mainstream liberals perceive Sanders and his gun record. Informing their perception is an assumption: any concern with the Second Amendment is inherently a conservative preoccupation, something only “gun nuts” worry about. Liberals don’t. The Democratic base doesn’t. That’s why Stern and Benen come to the conclusion that on guns Sanders “stands firmly to Clinton’s right.”
But that’s an impoverished understanding of civil liberties, and it frankly subscribes to the right’s frame of government versus freedom. Sadly, liberals appear too righteous to see that, and as they busy themselves with their righteousness, they lose sight of an important voting bloc that happens to care greatly about guns.
After every election, the Democratic Party spends a lot of time wondering why it keeps losing the support of white working-class voters. Why would the white working class support Republican candidates and policies when those candidates and policies are so detrimental to their economic interests?
Some conclude that racism is the reason, and there’s something to that. Others argue that such voters are being duped by the “culture war,” and there’s something to that, too. But could there also be something here about liberals and their claim to knowing what the Democratic base cares about? Perhaps, I wonder, the white working class might continue to side with the Republicans because liberal Democrats maintain a barely concealed contempt for the white working class, especially in the implication that those who care about guns are insane.
Fact is, the real issue in the gun debate is geography. Bernie Sanders knows it. Vermont is a rural state with relatively weak gun laws and relatively low rates of gun violence. Guns are normal. Meanwhile, most liberal Democrats, especially the ones who write for Slate and MSNBC, live in populous urban centers located on the east and west coasts, where in their experience having a gun makes no sense at all.
I’m not bothered by hypocrisy. What bothers me about this mainstream liberal reaction to Bernie Sanders’s record on gun legislation is what it says about mainstream liberalism, especially its understanding of the values of the white working class, a bloc of voters that the Democratic Party still needs in order to advance a majoritarian agenda.
As a close friend of Sanders told National Journal: “He doesn’t really care about guns. But he cares that other people care about guns. He thinks there’s an elitism in the antigun movement.” And he’s right.
John Stoehr is managing editor of The Washington Spectator.
Utah is the fourth most conservative state in the union, according to a January Gallup survey. Only 15 percent of residents identify as “liberal.” Yet the Beehive State is on the cusp of ending chronic homelessness using a new method that would appear to come straight from the Nancy Pelosi playbook—by giving away housing.
In 2005, the Republican administration of Gov. Jon Huntsman introduced a “centrally led and locally developed” strategy to defeat long-term homelessness. Called Housing Works, the program began with 17 people who had lived on the streets at least once in the previous year. The goal was to lead them to self-sufficiency, but they kept the housing even if they failed to pull their lives together.
Today, this strings-free approach has decreased homelessness by 74 percent, and by 2015 the state hopes to reach all 3,000 cases of homelessness. Denver has seen success with a similar effort, and Wyoming, the most conservative of all states, is poised to follow suit.
Conservatives know that giving away handouts decreases incentives to work and that, generally, welfare is the enemy of freedom. As Lee Bright of South Carolina, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary this year, reminded us: welfare is “legalized plunder.” He insisted: “Liberty is just the right to keep what is yours. When you raise taxes and put that burden on people, you take away their freedom.”
In choosing to give away housing to those who did not earn it by their labor, Utah may appear to be a bastion of “legalized plunder” in which hard-working Utahns are victimized by a powerful state government believing that somebody else deserves what they have earned. But dig deeper and you find a pioneering effort that is, first of all, effective and, if viewed properly, honors the spirit and substance of conservatism.
The model for Utah’s program took shape years earlier in New York City. Clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis had grown frustrated with orthodox methods that called for the homeless to overcome addiction, seek treatment for mental illness, and find work before getting housed. Tsemberis realized none of that was possible without housing first. So in 1992 he founded Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit group that has slowly transformed the ways municipalities address homelessness.
“The disengagement between the person wanting a place to live and a system that is offering treatment and sobriety and participation in programing as a condition for housing has failed people like this for years,” Tsemberis said during a 2012 presentation in Providence, R.I.
Tsemberis struck out to change that system. His strategy hinges on getting the homeless into permanent housing in order to establish ties to a community. The tenant agrees to pay a nominal rent of no more than 30 percent of whatever income he has. And he must abide by lease agreements, just as any other renter would do. Moreover, he is not forced to seek treatment for mental illness or addiction, but he is offered such programs by a full-time case worker who regularly visits to help the tenant negotiate his way through the maze of social services and charitable organizations.
“People are more likely to chart new paths if they have stable housing and meaningful choices from which to start,” Utah’s Homeless Coordinating Committee said in a plan-of-action report released in 2008.
Tsemberis’s program attracted the attention of Republican governors around the country because it ultimately saved money. Lots of taxpayer money. When Utah officials added up the amount going into medical treatment and law enforcement, the cost to the state per homeless individual was more than $216,300 a year in 2007 dollars, according to Housing Works. The cost of housing, rent assistance, and full-time case management, meanwhile, was just $19,500.
But fiscal restraint wasn’t enough to persuade some in Utah. After all, this is a deeply conservative state, and there’s something offensive about the idea of someone getting a free handout, especially something as valuable as housing. Surely skeptics were correct in assuming some kind of failure of character.
“There is an implicit assumption that because that person is homeless, it is [due to] something about them. Perhaps they didn’t work hard enough or what had been given to them had been squandered.” Tsemberis said in his 2012 presentation, acknowledging the proclivity among citizens and policymakers to “hold [the homeless] accountable for their suffering.”
Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, once agreed. But he’s now working with Wyoming officials to replicate his state’s success. He said in public remarks last year that he used to tell homeless people to find work. Then he found his views being challenged by the depth and complexity of the problem. His experience moved him to push aside one part of his conservatism, personal responsibility, and more closely embrace another. “These are my brothers and sisters,” he said. “When they’re hurting, we’re hurting as a community. We’re all connected.”
Eventually, Utahns like Pendleton came around to seeing the wisdom of providing housing without strings attached. Though it may at first sting a bit to see someone getting something he didn’t work for, over time most recipients of free housing take responsibility for their lives, Tsemberis says. Once they have the stability of housing, they can beat addiction, manage mental illness, seek more education, or find employment. Housing, critically, must come first.
In that spirit, Tsemberis argues that the Housing First model doesn’t just help the homeless. It helps the rest of us. “There’s a price that we are paying for homeless,” he said in 2012. “Not noticing is costing not only the people still homeless on the streets but it’s costing us. If we take for granted the feeling of seeing a homeless person and walking by, we have to shut down part of ourselves in order to tolerate the pain we’re walking past. In that we are together in a shared suffering, that actually can be alleviated.”
John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator.
A consensus has emerged since Pope Francis issued his very first “apostolic exhortation”: this is the most liberal pontiff since Pope John XXIII ushered in the ecclesiastical reforms of Vatican II.
I exaggerate, slightly. But after Rush Limbaugh characterized his exhortation as “just pure Marxism,” the die was cast. This impression was deepened even further last month after an Italian newspaper published an interview with the pontiff in which he indirectly responded to Limbaugh. When asked about the “ultraconservative” outcry, Francis told Turin’s La Stampa that, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.
So while the “ultraconservatives” in this country are gnashing their teeth over the pope’s “Marxist” exhortation, Francis is reminding us of what classical conservatism looks like. Pointing out that the economy is not doing what powerful people have long said it would doesn’t make you a Marxist. Pointing out capitalism’s destructive tendencies, however, especially with respect to the most vulnerable around the world, just might make you a conservative.
Institutional Christianity has always been concerned about poverty and other faceless forces of dehumanization. In a sense, by making the distinction between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine, the pope is challenging American conservatives (as represented by Limbaugh & Co.) to expand their moral horizons. If they can’t, then their conservatism, however much it aims to provoke moral outrage, is exposed as being merely good for business.