Of all the silly abstractions that politicians conjure up, I think that the idea of a “national conversation” is one of the worst. Nations cannot converse; only individual people can. And in the society that we live in, the individual people who will have the media access to lead a national conversation are not the kinds of thoughtful people that we should be looking to for solutions to things like gun violence in the first place. Talking about “national conversations” might make us feel like mature and rational grown ups, but the form that these conversations actually take will invariably be quite immature and irrational.
Ross Douthat, in today’s New York Times, makes this point pretty effectively:
The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite. Like so many members of that class, Bloomberg combines immense talent with immense provincialism: his view of American politics is basically the famous New Yorker cover showing Manhattan’s West Side overshadowing the world, and his bedrock assumption is that the liberal paternalism with which New York is governed can and should be a model for the nation as a whole.
It’s an assumption that cries out to be challenged by a thoughtful center-right. . . .
But instead of a kind of skepticism and sifting from conservatives, after a week of liberal self-righteousness the spotlight passed instead to … Wayne LaPierre. And no Stephen Colbert parody of conservatism could match the National Rifle Association spokesman’s performance on Friday morning. . . .
Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.
The entire Obama era has been shaped by this conflict, and not for the good. On issue after issue, debate after debate, there is a near-unified establishment view of what the government should do, and then a furious right-wing reaction to this consensus that offers no real policy alternative at all.
On a similar note, law professor Dave Hoffman argues that “national conversations” themselves actually undermine self-rule:
If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.
That is: a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace.
I think this is right, though I tend to believe that the Internet mitigates, rather than aggravates, the problem. At least, thanks to the Internet, we can seek out thoughtful commentators like, say, Eugene Volokh on gun control if we really want to. Good luck finding someone of that caliber on MSNBC, Fox, or any of the other major news outlets. (The New York Times should be commended for hiring high-quality writers like Ross Douthat and, yes, Paul Krugman, but most other news outlets do not.)
Ultimately, I think the problem won’t be solved until conversations are really denationalized. I don’t know how we’ll get there, but we will know we’ve reached the goal when people have the same reaction to the idea of a “national conversation” that they would have today to the idea of a “hemispherical conversation.” The idea that problems should be discussed and solved on a national level not only undermines individual liberty and self-rule (by shifting power from individuals and authentic communities to the national government), but also virtually guarantees that the conversations we do get will be the kinds of conversations that aren’t worth having.