If a single phrase could describe the contemporary American mindset, it might be “to harden,” which can be defined as any effort to make a target more difficult to assault. The term is a legacy, perhaps, of September 11 and the decades-long war that followed, invoking the nation’s soft underbelly while suggesting protective armor. After the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Republicans called for schools to harden themselves. The state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, suggested they restrict the number of entrances so that they could “make it more difficult for a shooter” to enter. In Ohio, Republicans passed a law that reduces the hours of training required for a teacher to bear arms in school. This is not an unusual response to school shootings, as the Washington Post recently pointed out: Post-Columbine, schools increased the numbers of law enforcement on the premises, turned to bulletproof glass and doors without windows, and drilled students repeatedly to lock down in case of an active shooter.
That conservatives would seek refuge in the gun is no surprise. Nor have they broken character by urging America to man up. However, this fortress mentality manifests itself, too, among liberals. A bipartisan gun deal in the Senate allocates funding for school-security measures, which suggests that “hardened” schools may become an American fixture. Beyond gun violence, liberals are locking their doors and hiring more cops. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks and once a rumored pick to become Hillary Clinton’s Labor secretary, said last week that the company may “harden our stores and provide safety for our people” by closing its bathrooms to the public. The Democratic mayors of major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City fearmonger, calling for law and order amid a supposed urban crime wave. Hardened cities mean more police, though the roots of crime, whether urban or rural, are complex, and owe to material conditions and structural failures that brute force alone cannot solve. Politicians in both parties are looking for scapegoats, and in America they are never that difficult to find. The same applies to the right’s response to gun violence. Better to arm teachers than restrict the number of guns; the latter contradicts the most cherished tenets of the conservative movement.
Faced with threats real and imagined, the right leans on its anti-society convictions. The America they envisage is an America bristling with guns and schools that resemble prisons and strong men in power. This America is heavily policed, its communities guarded by gun owners en masse. Solidarity is nonexistent in this world, and too many liberals are playing along. While they are more likely to call for gun control, they nevertheless demonstrate reactionary qualities that align them more closely with the right than with the left. By embracing the hardening of America, liberals only empower the right. There is no evidence, for example, that reducing cash bail in New York ever contributed to an uptick in crime, but leading Democrats caved to hostile headlines and a rabid campaign from the right and worked to undo progress in pieces. In practical terms, this shifts the responsibility for crime from the political class and onto the poor, who are already the most over-policed among us. This is evident in the attitudes liberal cities display toward the unhoused, clearing homeless encampments and criminalizing poverty while offering few options for safe shelter or health care.
Yet another attack on the unhoused is the absence of public restrooms, which may be worsened if Starbucks indeed “hardens” its stores. Liberals can be complicit in such attacks, as the UCLA sociologist Chris Herring wrote in 2019. “In a recently published study surveying homeless San Franciscans, my colleagues and I found that in the previous year, 70 percent of them had been forced to move by an officer, 69 percent had been cited, and 46 percent had their tents or other belongings confiscated by city workers,” he said. “Only about 12 percent reported that they’d been offered services — usually a sandwich or a pamphlet — and less than 5 percent said they were offered shelter.” Liberal cities, he observed, thus had something in common with the hated Trump administration: a hostile attitude to the poor and unhoused, which hasn’t changed since Trump left office.
Conservatives have a dim view of society. To the Christian right, we are in pieces, torn apart by drag queens and trans athletes. Their more secular counterparts are no less resentful: Wokeness is similarly the enemy, a tool employed by cultural elites against a more traditional cohort. Both agree that in such a society, disorder is to be expected, and it can only be solved by a strong man in power. To embrace a fortress mentality is to reject liberal democracy itself. Instead, liberals should shape themselves around the truth. Society is healthier and more cohesive than the right wants to admit. Where America is sick, it has fallen to a manufactured sickness. The culprit isn’t base human nature — the sin nature, as Evangelicals might say — but a purposefully unequal political economy that achieved prosperity for some at a high human cost.
The men and women who would build a fortress America are all devotees of the free market. This is not a coincidence. Capitalism churns up the poor and abandons them to the streets. Today’s elites owe their might to capitalism and have precious little tolerance for living reminders of its limitations. The opposite of a fortress America is an America that accepts that all human beings have equal dignity and worth. This is closer to the majority view in any case. Most Americans want stricter gun control, and while electoral reform isn’t always a top priority for voters, when polled most say they support efforts to expand voting rights, too. They want limits on corporate power. Top conservative goals, like ending the right to abortion, tend to lack much popular support and their revanchism on LGBTQ+ rights, and their aggression toward trans people in particular, boasts mixed support at best.
Even so, the left is in no position to declare victory in the battle for the American mind. Voters are divided about the necessity of more corporate regulation. They keep electing tough-on-crime mayors, and fearful headlines about poverty and disorder are influential. Overall, the idea that liberalizing generations will rescue the Democratic Party from itself is self-congratulatory drivel. Yet the seeds of better possibilities are present here, and with persuasion, they can grow. Solidarity has been absent from liberalism. Without it, the future will be hard indeed.