Politics & Policy

Demagoguery Is Not Leadership

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to students during a visit to Cashmere High School in Christchurch, March 20, 2019. (Edgar Su/Reuters)
The rush to crack down on gun rights in the wake of a mass shooting is not laudable, but sinister.

The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand has, with the support of the opposition, decided to enact fundamental changes in the nation’s firearms laws less than a week after the massacre at two Christchurch mosques.

This is the opposite of leadership. It is also an example of why Americans should cherish our Bill of Rights and resist current progressive attempts to gut the first two of its amendments.

New Zealand is prohibiting and seizing certain common firearms, including semi-automatic rifles described as “military-style,” a term with no substantive meaning. American progressives — the ones who are always reassuring us that they don’t want to seize anybody’s guns but seek only “commonsense” regulation — are so green with envy that they may spontaneously begin photosynthesis.

Prohibiting ordinary firearms is not a good policy, but if it were a good one, it would have been a good one a year ago — and it would still be a good one a year from now. Acting with a minimum of debate and reflection in the wake of a convulsive national horror may be the easiest way to enact sweeping legal changes, but it also is the worst way.

This is especially true when the question involves the fundamental rights of citizens. That the government of New Zealand does not recognize the right to keep and bear arms as a civil right — a right that distinguishes citizens from subjects — is no more relevant to the question than the censorship enacted by the junta in Beijing is to the status of free speech as a civil right. Governments do not create human rights — they only recognize them or violate them.

Democratic governments violate civil rights most often when their citizens are terrified and angry: That kind of fearful stampeding is how you get nice liberals like Franklin Roosevelt building concentration camps and rounding up citizens for detention based on their ancestry.

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, considers the headlong rush in New Zealand and concludes: “That’s what effective leadership looks like.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others say the same thing, in almost the same words. But Ardern et al. are not engaged in leadership at all; they are engaged in followership, trying to appeal to the emotions of people who are traumatized, scared, and angry. Getting out in front of a parade is not leadership. Getting out in front of a parade of people wracked by rage and terror is demagoguery.

Thank goodness for stubborn old George Mason. Mason, the author of Virginia’s bill of rights, was skeptical of the new central government being created at the Constitutional Convention, believing it to have been invested with too much power. (Who in 2019 can say he was entirely wrong?) He refused to sign off on the final product, and James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to assuage Mason and his camp.

Though the Washington Post may lament the fact, the United States is fortunate in that the Constitution provides at least a few guardrails to keep the stampeding herd from going over the edge entirely. The Bill of Rights shelters certain fundamental rights from democratic passion — no matter how terrified, how angry, how sanctimonious, how self-righteous the demos and the demagogues may be.

It is instructive to note who opposes those protections and wishes to see them dissolved. Senate Democrats under Harry Reid voted to nullify the First Amendment, which stands in the way of their desire to put all political discourse under heavy regulation. The same so-called progressives wish to see the Second Amendment either diminished to meaninglessness or — as the more honest among them will forthrightly admit — repealed entirely. The same left-wing activists have declared open war on the concept of due process, for example in their proposals to revoke the constitutional rights of Americans who have been put on various governmental watch-lists but who never have been charged with, much less convicted of, any crime. Meanwhile, ordinary gun crimes — the high-profile mass shootings that command so much attention are not a statistical blip in the grand scheme of American criminal violence — go largely unprosecuted, and often uninvestigated, in Democrat-dominated areas such as Chicago and by Democrat-allied forces in the federal government, for purely political reasons.

Strange and remarkable that the same people who are eager to gut the Bill of Rights can’t be bothered to investigate a straw-buyer case in St. Louis. One detects in this peculiar situation something at play that has nothing to do with homicide.

The people of New Zealand are being stampeded into forfeiting their civil rights with remarkably little discussion or time for contemplation. Demagogues adore the urgency of now, and moral panic has its political uses.

Today marks a seldom-observed anniversary: On March 24, 1765, Britain enacted the Quartering Act, which forced American colonists to house and feed some 10,000 British troops in their homes, shops, and other private buildings. This was one of what were called the Coercive Acts in Britain — and the Intolerable Acts in America. This practice, denounced in the Declaration of Independence, is prohibited by the Third Amendment. Quartering troops has not come up very often since the Revolution, but the rights protected in the First and Second Amendments have and do. That these rights have withstood so much panic and demagoguery for so many years is a testament to the practical value of writing things down. Americans are no less likely than the people of New Zealand to be buffaloed into divesting ourselves of our rights.

Happily, we had the foresight to make that difficult for ourselves.

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