Regular readers will know that I’m a critic of the “My opponent said something objectionable and I’m outraged!” school of campaigning, not to mention the “Candidate said something objectionable!” school of campaign coverage. One of the most important rules in assessing “gaffes” or outsized statements is that if the moment was extemporaneous, out of character, instantly regretted, and not repeated, then we should give it a pass, because it probably reveals next to nothing about the person who said it.
Having said that, there’s a new statement we learn about today from Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst that deserves some scrutiny, and Ernst ought to explain it. The Huffington Post has the news:
Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa, said during an NRA event in 2012 that she would use a gun to defend herself from the government.
“I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere,” Ernst said at the NRA and Iowa Firearms Coalition Second Amendment Rally in Searsboro, Iowa. “But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
Ernst’s defenders would say that she was only talking in general, hypothetical terms, and comparisons to Sharron Angle’s 2010 talk of armed revolt against the government are unfair (I’ll get to the Angle comparison in a moment). And it’s true that Ernst is speaking hypothetically here, when she says of the government “should they decide that my rights are no longer important.” That’s different from saying that the government has already decided her rights are no longer important or that armed revolt is actually imminent.
And there are plenty of examples of federal, state, and local governments trampling on people’s rights, particularly since September 11, that are worthy of debate, discussion, even angry condemnation, whether it’s the monitoring of phone calls, the surveillance of anti-war groups, the widespread “stop and frisk” policies that black people in particular are subject to (not something Joni Ernst has to worry about), or the appalling spread of asset forfeiture, under which local police forces and governments just steal innocent people’s money and property.
But if Ernst is talking about some hypothetical situation in which government’s disregard for her rights may necessitate an armed response it’s fair to ask her: What exactly is it? Is she saying that when law enforcement officers come to arrest her on some trumped-up charge, instead of submitting and fighting the charges in court she’ll shoot those officers? Who else is an appropriate target here? Members of Congress who pass laws taking away her rights? FBI agents? Who?
The problem with this new quote is that it borders on anti-democratic. I don’t care how many times you praise the Founding Fathers or talk about your love of the Constitution, if you think that the way to resolve policy differences or personal arguments with the government is not just by trying to get different people elected or waging a campaign to change the laws or filing suits in court, but through the use of violence against the government, you have announced that you have no commitment to democracy. In the American system, we don’t say that if the government enacts policies we don’t like, we’ll start killing people. It’s not clear that Ernst meant this, but it’s fair to ask her to explain what she did mean.
Sharron Angle said: “Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” That sounded a lot more like a call for insurrection, based simply on policy differences with Democrats. Ernst’s statement doesn’t amount to that. But it does fetishize guns as a tool for fighting the government.
The larger context here is that rhetorical suggestions that democratic processes are legitimate only when they produce desired outcomes have become commonplace. That’s one of the things that has changed in America since Barack Obama got elected. Ernst’s defenders may argue that Ernst is only talking about some future hypothetical takeover by a tyrannical government, in which case an armed response might be appropriate. But how many times in the last six years have we heard conservatives — including well regarded commentators, elected officials, and other people of high standing — talk about the ordinary processes of democracy in the same terms we used to reserve for military coups and despotic campaigns of repression?
Things like Barack Obama’s two elections, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and a hundred other government actions are now routinely called “tyranny” and “fascism” by people just like Joni Ernst. Given that recent history, the defense that she’s talking only about some remote scenario out of “1984” or “Fahrenheit 451” is a little hard to believe.
It’s entirely possible that Ernst didn’t mean her statement to come out sounding the way it did. She may have just been mirroring back to her audience their own beliefs. Ernst should be given the opportunity to elaborate — and pressed to answer specific questions about when she thinks it’s acceptable for an American citizen to use violence against representatives of the American government. If she answers those questions in a way that demonstrates a commitment to democracy, I’ll be happy to say that her statement to the NRA should be set aside.