Guns and Identity Politics
There has been so much said about the tragedy of what happened last week in Parkland, Florida, as well as about the insanity of America’s gun culture, the grip of the NRA on the Republican Party, and the apparent impossibility of reform, that it almost feels like overkill to write on the subject of guns in America now. Indeed, what is so infuriating about the discourse after each mass shooting, besides the obvious fury one ought to feel after such an event, is that almost anything one can think to say about it has already been said. This goes for both the calls of anyone with a shred of sense for restrictions on the sale of firearms, and the proposals on the hard right to increase the number of guns in circulation so that the fabled “good guy with a gun” will be there to stop the next attack.
When it was reported today that Donald Trump is planning to fund a federal program to encourage arming schoolteachers, then, this was not much of a surprise. Long before Trump, proposals like this existed on the Republican right. But the language Trump used confirmed a trend that does appear to be a distinct feature of American democracy today. Trump not only echoed longstanding rhetoric about giving guns to teachers, but also proposed providing training and bonus pay to “highly adept people, people who understand weaponry, guns … [with] a concealed permit.” This program is not about putting an AR-15 in the hands of just any teachers; it would instead target just those teachers that already happen to be gun enthusiasts for special benefits and incentives.
Gun control, in other words, is now openly an identity issue. Republicans appear less interested in making arguments that more guns in circulation leads to greater safety or freedom, than promoting the cultural worldview of a group of people they call “gun owners” (or “highly adept people”). To the ever-expanding list of “hyphenated Americans” that the right has long deplored, it now seeks to add “gun-owning Americans.” And as in everything American, there has been a rush to commercialize this sentiment. The gun-enthusiast website tacticalshit.com, for example, recently announced that it is selling yellow star patches for “persecuted” gun owners.
The rise of white supremacism and the alt-right in the last three years have been described as a right-wing appropriation of an “identity politics” typically associated with a certain kind of left on college campuses. Mark Lilla, recently the most outspoken adherent of this view, defines identity politics as a political position that is taken to derive directly from some pre-conceived category that a person uses to define him- or herself. As an example of this sort of thinking, Lilla likes to quote students who start their interventions in seminar rooms with the phrase “speaking as an X [i.e., as a woman, as an African-American, as a Jew, etc.]…” After the 2016 election, Lilla began writing that left identity politics was what cost Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party the presidency. Though I believe Lilla attaches too much importance to campus discourse on “social justice” in explaining the phenomenon—I find it hard to believe identity politics could spread from Ivy League students reading Judith Butler out to the rest of the nation—the right’s current rhetoric on guns seems to be a clear indication that this kind of identitarian thinking has become a widespread feature of American politics.
Trump certainly took advantage of, and helped accelerate, the transformation of partisan attachments into cultural identities. Many people who voted for him did so not so much because they believed in what he was saying, but because they felt he “spoke for them” in a vague, largely symbolic sense. Had I been writing this post a year ago, I would have probably said that the right’s ability to profit from identarian sentiments in this manner was a sign of its strength. There is certainly a lot the Republicans can do to further reinforce the cultural divide between “gun-owning,” “troop-supporting,” “flag-waving” Americans and their estranged compatriots who drive hybrid cars, watch John Oliver, or cheer on Colin Kaepernick. Indeed, consumer culture has recently discovered the lucrative potential of a culturally polarized society: just after the release of the film “Black Panther” long awaited by liberals and progressives, gun manufacturers offered special “Make America Great Again” promotions for “bump stocks.”
But given the unusually combative response by anti-gun activists in the wake of the Parkland shootings, especially among high school students, I am somewhat hopeful that the right’s reliance on identity politics (much more so than the left, contra Mark Lilla) is the sign of its underlying weakness. It is still too early to tell definitively, but it seems that efforts to put pressure on politicians and businesses to cut ties with the NRA have had some modest success, which is more than can be said after most mass shootings, when all we tend to see is a chorus of “thoughts and prayers” and a boost in gunmakers’ sales. It is easy to see the limits in principle of a party that offers nothing more than symbolic victories to its identitarian base. The question now is whether the other side can offer something different.
Photo credit: Tac6 Media, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/143258095@N08/27550629711