On Lewiston, Donald Trump, and Gaza
Three situations in which liberals would've been better off leading instead of following
The day after last week’s gun massacre in Lewiston, ME, the town’s Democratic congressman, Jared Golden, addressed the media and seized the opportunity to atone for his past opposition to banning assault rifles.
“Because of a false confidence that our community was above this and that we could be in full control, among many other misjudgments, I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war like the assault weapon used to carry out this crime,” Golden said, clearly rattled. “The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing.”
Outside of right-wing and gun-mad precincts, Golden earned a lot of good will for these remarks, and for the most part that’s as it should be:
Golden represents a competitive rural district;
He isn’t perfect (nobody is) but he’s far preferable to any Republican who might conceivably replace him;
Obviously we should prefer public servants who embrace good policy before rather than after chaotic events test the soundness of their their agendas;
We should also prefer public servants who don’t fear admitting error to those who believe conceding anything, ever, is a form of weakness.
But it is also a bit too credulous. How unimaginative does Golden want us to think he is? In the United States in the year 2023, few can credibly claim ignorance of the relationship between the nationwide profusion of assault rifles and the epidemic of spree killings. There are those who understand that substantially reducing the number of assault rifles would reduce the number of massacres, and those who believe their fun and fantasies take precedence over our collective freedom, and very few who occupy a principled middle. The squishy people who, for instance, chalk this kind of violence up to mass mental illness are either too afraid to stipulate “my right to build an arsenal trumps your right to basic public safety” or too afraid to insist these weapons be taken out of circulation.
Which is to say, I think Jared Golden knew better before Lewiston, but chose to free-ride in opposition to an assault-weapons ban because he knew his vote wouldn’t be decisive—an assault weapons ban couldn’t clear a Senate filibuster, and taking a free “no” vote would simplify his district-level politics.
In other words, he did popularism.
And now I can’t help but wonder if he thinks that was the right guidestar.
To be clear, I don’t think the course he took was some kind of political disaster: He’s still in Congress! His position-taking almost certainly had no connection to the massacre itself—Golden didn’t doom the AWB, it was doomed with or without him. And it’s hard to know if his standing is meaningfully weaker for occupying the “willing to admit he was wrong” lane rather than the “he was prescient” lane.
But this is a big, pressing issue in American politics, where the moral stakes should at least partially rival the optimal-politics calculation. And more to the point, it’s an issue where the risk of political expediency is obvious: There will eventually be a mass shooting in every state, and with each massacre, another set of cynical or dastardly politicians to expose.
Golden could’ve thought one step ahead, and now instead of admitting error, he’d be chastising his opponents for standing in the way of a policy that would’ve saved his constituents from slaughter.
I’ve been thinking about this kind of calculation a lot lately, as I’ve watched politicians react to the war in Gaza, and Joe Biden contend with a bad-faith actor in Bibi Netanyahu, and judges wrestle with whether they should hold Donald Trump to general standards under the rule of law. I find myself increasingly puzzled over how to weaken this widespread liberal assumption that risk aversion and following the public lead is always wise, even at the expense of the better world they want to build. Even when the underlying issues are salient, failure of the status quo seems likely, and the consequences of failure would be severe.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Off Message to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.