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.