The searing political and social divides in our country encourage a search for the magic key. We want a Big Idea that will explain why we disagree so passionately—on gun control, abortion, taxes and lots of other things—and also why we seem to loathe those whose beliefs diverge from our own.
A few weeks ago, Robert Leonard, a radio news director in Knoxville, Iowa, took a thoughtful crack at exploring why Americans in rural areas so often differ with their urban fellow citizens on gun control. Writing in the New York Times, Leonard argued that their differences came down to radically opposed understandings of human nature, about as sweeping an explanation as you’ll get.
Leonard cited a 2015 Iowa speech by former Republican Congressman J. C. Watts. “Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled,“ Leonard wrote. “Republicans think the fault lies with the person—the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.“
“The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference,” Leonard continued. “Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.”
This is certainly a good description of the “guns don’t kill people” rhetoric of those opposed to taking action against guns. Here’s the problem, and perhaps this might help us talk to each other about these matters: Extreme optimism about human nature is not, in fact, central to the liberal creed. On the contrary, especially since the 1930s and 1940s, liberals have been acutely aware of our fallen nature and our capacity for evil. The Holocaust, the Gulag, the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the staggering death toll of World War II made thoroughly sunny perspectives about human goodness obsolete. The horrors in this period gave birth to a different kind of liberalism, distilled in the thinking of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.