For a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: The only possible response to Adam Lanzas rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.
The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New Yorks 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 Manhattans 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.
Its an assumption that cries out to be challenged by a thoughtful center-right. If you look at the specific proposals being offered by Bloomberg and others, some just look like reruns of assault weapon regulations that had no obvious effect the last time they were tried. Others still might have an impact on gun violence, but only at a cost: The popular idea of cracking down hard on illegal handguns, for instance, would probably involve stop and frisk on a huge scale, and might throw more young men in prison at a time when our incarceration rates are already too high.
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 spokesmans performance on Friday morning.
It wasnt so much that LaPierres performance made no concession whatsoever on gun restrictions or gun safety that was to be expected. It was that he launched into a rambling diatribe against an absurdly wide array of targets, blaming everything from media sensationalism to gun-free schools signs to 90s-vintage nihilism like Natural Born Killers for the Newtown tragedy. Then he proposed, as an alternative to the liberal heavy-handedness of gun control, something equally heavy-handed a cop in every school, to be paid for by that right-wing old reliable, cuts to foreign aid.
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 thats far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism thats 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.
The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.
The right-wing view is embittered, paranoid and confused. It opposes anything the establishment supports but doesnt know what it wants to do instead. (Defund government or protect Medicare? Break up the banks or deregulate them? Send more troops to Libya or dont get involved? Protect our liberties or put our schools on lockdown?)
Sometimes the rights just say no approach holds the establishment at bay as on climate change and immigration, to date. But sometimes, as the House Republicans are demonstrating in the budget showdown, it makes the eventual defeat that much more sweeping.
Whats missing, meanwhile, are real alternatives not only conservative, but left-wing as well. On national security, the left has essentially disappeared, sitting on its hands while President Barack Obama embraces powers every bit as imperial as those his predecessor claimed. On economic issues, the Occupy Wall Street movement passed on the chance to actually advance an anti-corporate agenda in favor of consciousness raising and theoretical self-gratification.
As for a conservatism with a serious program, and a real understanding of the challenges facing America today well, hopefully it will surface by the 2016 presidential campaign. Till then, its the hubris of Bloomberg versus the humbug of LaPierre. Merry Christmas, America.
The new york times