When the call for partisan respect and the stasis in our gun laws collide

New York Times columnist David Brooks discusses democracy, national healing, and partisan respect during a conversation at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

Written by: Jessica Gover, Research Assistant and Writer at the Ash Center

arlier this week, David Brooks spoke at Harvard and argued for respect across partisan lines. The weight of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was heavy in the room. Brooks’ latest op-ed reacted to that tragic event and argued that if the arrogance of the left can come to respect the beliefs of the right then and only then will we have the necessary communal understanding to facilitate a productive conversation about changing gun control in this country. This invocation of partisan respect is a common trope used in arguments that justify the status quo of gun rights in the US, and while at Harvard, Brooks couched his call for respect within an elegant vision of American democracy, he failed to recognize that the continued stasis of gun laws in America is in direct contradiction to that very democracy.

Mr. Brooks invoked John Stewart Mill, Nietzsche, and other philosophers, as we were at Harvard, eloquently arguing that respect, love, and commitment of community are the answer to our prayers for a better democracy. Brooks enticed the audience into the calming pool of justice as justice and community for all. But it was in his allusion to Hannah Arendt, a rare female voice within his discussion, on the commitment and work necessary to the health of a democracy that struck me.

I spent my graduate study focused on just this concept, specifically on how Arendt’s political theory foregrounds a robust, plural concept of democracy wherein citizens have a responsibility to their community. In her writings, a citizen has a responsibility to work at their ‘democratic skillset’, particularly their ability to judge. We are not innately good democratic citizens — judgement in the public is a challenging endeavor and the good work of engaging in the polis is only improved with regular, life-long practice.

The beauty in Arendt’s theory is that it too draws upon the idea of love — love came up frequently in Brooks’ talk — her dissertation was on love in St. Augustine’s works. Respect, love, commitment, how could we not agree with this vision of democracy? Well, to put it simply: we must.

The poetry and elegance of the idea of democracy and community provided by Brooks rings obtuse when presented in reaction to and within the context of the reality of gun rights and use in this country. As he spoke to an at-capacity room at Harvard I struggled not to envision if he ever felt the pang of concern that one or many of the individuals present were carrying a weapon or better still that one of those individuals possessed the intention of doing harm with that weapon. The irony that he spoke such platitudes within the sanctuary of the academy was overwhelming — how can we feel such security to discuss ideas of democracy, to judge the state of our community from within the walls of a university when the children of our country must carry that fear at school, when the schools of our country are at such risk? And they are at risk, but, for once in this world, we can fix it.

The injustice of this type of argument is that it accepts the continued existence of gun laws as they exist today for even a second longer. Brooks overlooks the immense cost to the wellbeing of the future of this country, its children, and this pains me to my core. What is this American democracy when the price we pay for guns is the lives and safety of our children? The tragedy of democratic theory is in its failure, at times, to recognize the painful truth of practice. The commitment, respect, and love proffered by Brooks’ idea of democracy are both elegant and, truthfully, accurate, but the banality of these claims is beyond the pale. Children deserve more from their democracy than what America is giving them.

So, where do we go from here? Arendt would look directly to the legislative branch — but not as we have come to understand it today, as a paternalistic arm of our democracy wherein elected officials provide the people with the laws and policy they deem necessary or important, but rather for the reverse. Congress members serve as conduits for their people, representatives of the people, and it does not take much nor is it particularly partisan to say that the internal compass of the legislative branch has strayed from the true north of representativeness. Meet with your representatives, write them, use social media if that’s your cup of tea, and most importantly, speak up! I know this feels ineffective, and rings a bit obtuse, too — how could my voice affect change? How could the opinion of one person make this world different? How could I matter in the massive machine that is America’s democracy?

Gatherings that express a common belief that is contrary to the law of the land is a critical part of a democracy and while it may not provide the direct and immediate result that championing a drafted piece of legislation offers, it is a component of achieving that change, just as much as casting a vote in an election. The need for vast reforms to our institutions is profound and will not be achieved overnight, but the wrong of American gun laws is self-evident and does not need to be coupled with or deprioritized by that need to make our institutions more democratic.

Exercise your political voice, make your judgement in the injustice of our guns laws known. Speak up, speak often, and demand a better democracy for our children. I applaud the children who have marched on the capitol, but I bemoan them, too, for it is in our failure as members of this community that their action has erupted.

Jessica Gover is a research assistant and writer at the Ash Center. She completed her master’s degree in Political Science in the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences and received her B.A. at Trinity College. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ash Center or Harvard University.

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.