As the new year begins, the Obama administration is taking a new run at imposing unilateral gun control measures. It is likely that the president will take some action related to his proposal, issued in November, that anyone on the terror watch list be barred from purchasing a gun. In doing so, he may inadvertently reveal a sharp divide in his own coalition, and may even create an opportunity for conservatives.
The president’s plan has many flaws and, as Gabriel Malor pointed out when the idea first emerged, Democrats have not even been completely honest about what they are proposing. But the biggest problem is that the president proposes to deprive people of constitutional rights by the simple expedient of placing their names on a list. No hearing, no trial, and no explanation necessary: just the simple typing of a person’s name renders him a second-class citizen.
This proposal has laid bare the divide between liberals and leftists. There is considerable overlap between the two groups, which is why they both have found a home in the Democratic Party. Both generally want to solve society’s ills by using the power of government to grind out the baser parts of our human nature, defining those base parts according to the progressive conventional wisdom of the moment. Both also profess an attachment to civil rights, although, as with their idea of human nature, their ideas on natural rights are prone to fluctuation.
The Daylight Between Liberals and Leftists
The difference between liberals and leftists is a matter of emphasis. One way to look at it is to say that liberals are concerned about means, while leftists are concerned about ends. Liberals are typically interested in process and structures. They care, to some extent, about checks and balances and fundamental ideas of fairness. Although they typically trust government as a whole and believe it is a force for good, they may distrust various parts of government, and will work to ensure there is oversight to provide that everyone is being treated fairly. They even, although less so than was once the case, have some good feelings for natural rights, especially those found in the Bill of Rights (with the exception of the Second Amendment, in recent years).
Leftists, on the other hand, care only about results. These are the central planners. They may give lip service to civil rights, but only when it helps their own efforts of the moment, or when it is necessary to placate liberals in their own coalition. What they really want is equality, as determined and administered by the state, which they would control. They speak in the language of rights, but shift the meaning to serve their own purposes. A typical formulation is “What good is the right to [X] if we don’t provide [someone else’s] money to buy [a product somewhat related to X].” They would like the right to be enforced, but what they really want is the money.
There is usually no daylight between liberals and leftists. They both talk of the same rights, trends, and groups, and vote the same way in Congress. The rare issue to divide them is one, like Obama’s proposal, that aims to accomplish a leftist end by illiberal means. The plan is perfectly satisfying to the leftists, taking away a right they find strange and abhorrent. The problem for liberals is not that it violates the Second Amendment (they have long given up on that section of the Bill of Rights,) nor that it goes after guns at all (they find civilian gun culture as alien as leftists do), but that it seeks to do these things by means that obviously violate the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment.
If You’re Depriving Rights, Do It Properly
To their credit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that flagship of liberal activism, has expressed misgivings about using the terror watch list to restrict the right to purchase a gun, saying in a press release that “the standards for inclusion on the No Fly List are unconstitutionally vague, and innocent people are blacklisted without a fair process to correct government error.” They are happy to restrict gun rights, and they still maintain the administration’s fiction that the no-fly list, rather than the much larger watch list, is the basis for the power grab. But the ACLU and its liberal members cannot stomach the idea of depriving someone of his rights by the flawed and arbitrary process by which the watch list is created.
This presents a problem for the president and an opportunity for Republicans. Obama has accidentally triangulated himself, but most Democrats in Congress and their allies in the media have joined him in choosing the leftist faction in their party’s divide. Unfortunately, the remaining liberals are few, and mostly without power. Only one Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, joined Republicans in voting down the proposal in the Senate.
All of the opposition has been on the Right, especially among the Republican Party’s libertarian wing. But, as small as the liberals’ numbers apparently are in the corridors of Congress, they are larger out there in the country. By embracing the rights at issue here—the Fifth Amendment, as well as the Second—Republicans have a chance to peel away liberal voters, if only a few, and show the country that their professed admiration for the Constitution and the rule of law is not merely fodder for fundraising letters. The leftists have dropped the mask and shown the world their illiberal face. We on the Right should make the most of it.