The pattern was established long ago. A killing spree happens. The Democratic Party and mainstream media erupt in calls for gun control. Republicans shy away from cable news for a few days. Various fixes to the background check and mental health systems are proposed, video games are criticized, and eventually our attention turns elsewhere, until another spectacular attack restarts the cycle. President Trump increases the volume and heightens the perceived stakes. The advocates of gun control, such as Elizabeth Warren, say he's a "white supremacist." Opponents of regulation say he's the only thing that stands between them and dispossession of their Second Amendment rights.
Disentangling the various threads of argument in the debate over guns, mass shootings, mental illness, white nationalism, and domestic terrorism would take volumes. What interests me, as someone who is inclined to support some gun controls, is why the debate takes the shape it does. Indeed, the fact that I, a child of the D.C. suburbs and graduate of Columbia University, am a self-confessed squish on guns points to a possible explanation. For the argument over firearms is not really over any of the specific proposals floated in the aftermath of mass murder. It is over who shall direct the shape of American society, and by what means.
Beginning in the 1970s, some of the writers and editors who became known as neoconservatives observed changes in the American elite. The tradition of liberal internationalism, which held individual liberty as the preeminent value and believed in equality of opportunity, as well as a safety net, was under assault. A rising generation of activists charged liberal internationalism with hypocrisy: not only abroad, where intervention in Vietnam had run aground, but also at home, where formal equality under the law had not produced substantive results. Something was wrong with America, the students said. Only a fundamental transformation of our nation would set things aright.
Neoconservatives called this incipient elite the "new class." It consists, Irving Kristol wrote in 1975, "of scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators, criminologists, sociologists, public health doctors, etc.—a substantial number of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private." To that list one might add journalists, professors, post-docs, adjuncts, foundation officers, and a great number of programmers, managers, human resource officers, and CEOs. The neoconservatives never defined the "new class" precisely—something their critics pointed out. The category was meant to be a catchall, a handy description of the well-schooled professionals who began their long march through America's academic, media, entertainment, government, and corporate institutions in the aftermath of 1968.
"Mass higher education has converted this movement into something like a mass movement proper," Kristol said, "capable of driving a president from office (1968) and nominating its own candidate (1972)." The year before Kristol wrote those words, the new class had sent another president packing. The new class grew in size and influence. It was not a select few working behind the scenes. It was not a conspiracy. Its motives were genuine—but also genuinely different from the liberal internationalism of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, and Humphrey. "Members of the new class," Kristol wrote, "do not ‘control' the media, they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system, and much else."
When neoconservatives began analyzing the new class, around 10 percent of American adults had earned a bachelor's degree or higher. About a quarter of all jobs were in manufacturing. Today, the percentage of college graduates has doubled while manufacturing employment has plunged. The new class of college-educated professionals and managers has expanded, and its aspirations, values, and ideals are ever more present in our culture and politics.
Kristol was careful to say that the new class was not monolithic: "It contains men and women who are not necessarily ‘pro-business,' and who may not be much interested in business at all, but who are interested in individual liberty and limited government, who are worried about the collectivist tendencies in the society." But in recent years the portion of the new class that subscribes to the old liberal internationalism has receded into the background.
What was once an intra-new-class fight over the size and scope of government has become a struggle to define the American nation between the new class on one hand and Donald Trump, his national populists, and a few new-class fellow travelers on the other. The new class has incredible resources at its disposal, from the expansive and appealing ideology of "diversity, equity, and inclusion" to communications, tech, state and local governments, bureaucracies, and the courts. Trump has a Twitter account, half of a cable network, Mitch McConnell, the Supreme Court, and 63 million voters.
One reason the battle is so pitched is that, as the new class multiplied in numbers and strength, the divide between it and the rest of the country grew into the Mariana Trench. The culture of the new class, which originates in Charles Murray's "super-zips" and extends into the suburbs, has little in common with, speaks even a different language than, residents of exurban and rural America whose votes go to Trump.
It is on the issue of guns that this incomprehension is most pronounced. The cable news anchors expressing frustration and disbelief that the latest shooting may not result in tighter regulation of firearms are sincere. They live safe and satisfying lives without guns; why can't the rest of the country do the same? Yet the spokesmen for "doing something" do not appreciate the equal sincerity of gun owners, whose weapons are not just possessions but also, on some level, part of their identity.
Guns are especially frustrating to the new class because they are the rare case where the courts, which normally are its ally, have not achieved its objectives. The Heller decision (2008) irks Democrats to no end because the Supreme Court said that Second Amendment guarantees rule out some forms of regulation. Gun owners have been adept at using the language of rights—usually the preferred means of the new class—to attain ends the new class abhors. That has forced advocates of gun control back into the democratic arena, where the new class has so often been repudiated.
No amount of evidence showing the inefficacy of gun control, or the virtues of alternative policies, will convince the new class to drop its crusade for regulation. That is not just because guns are safety hazards. It is because guns remind the new class that it has not succeeded in imposing the values of one part of the country, and one segment of the population, on the rest.