In the debate on gun control, we have a microcosm of the social and political landscape of this country writ large. On one side, we have those who stand firmly against government intervention, especially when it comes to what they view as their constitutional rights. On the other, we have those who see gun violence as a major issue that must be addressed through government regulation. In short, we have a classic freedom versus safety argument that has been a point of contention since America’s earliest days. The current debate, however, highlights a shift in American politics. The failure of a popular background-checks bill demonstrates that lawmakers are no longer directly beholden to their constituents; rather, they are controlled by the most active lobbyists with the deepest pockets. This is a symptom of our broken political system.
After the Newtown tragedy took the lives of 20 innocent children, politicians insisted, “This time is different.” When it came time to consider the smallest of steps to curb gun violence — implementing background checks to ensure that criminals and the mentally ill could not buy guns — there was seemingly no debate. Well over 90% of the country favored this proposal according to a CNN poll. Despite this overwhelming evidence of broad support for such a bill, even getting it to the Senate floor proved difficult. After President Obama made an emotional plea to Congress on behalf of the victims of gun violence, the American people did eventually get a vote. The result was predictable: Washington once again succeeded in doing nothing.
When a measure supported by 90% of Americans can’t pass, it’s fair to start wondering whether we can keep calling our system of government “democratic.” The problem is complex, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve it. The Founding Fathers designed our government to ensure no single entity, be it a man or state, wielded too much power. The many checks and balances put in place to safeguard us from tyranny have been distorted so as to prevent us from taking action. As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne points out, the Senate’s self-imposed 60-vote rule means that 41 senators representing just 11 percent of the population could theoretically block any bill. The result is a system where the few can overrule the many, turning a 90-10 issue on its head.
The disproportionate influence of a few combined with powerful special interests that lobby and influence lawmakers with wads of cash stacks the deck against our government ever being a vehicle of meaningful change. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case has exacerbated the issue, leaving politicians scrambling for money and making the 2012 election year the most expensive yet. When politicians see that their political futures are tied to their ability to finance their campaigns, they have every incentive to cater to big donors even when these donors are in the minority on an issue. While we would like to believe American voters are educated and won’t be fooled by political messaging, the reality is money, and the ads and organizers it buys, can win an election.
The failure of the gun-control bill is a reflection of this broken political system. Our government is designed to move slowly and surely, and that makes it easy to trip up when it tries to move at all. Highly organized, well-funded advocacy groups can use this reality to their advantage, resulting in political paralysis. Until we limit the access and influence of lobbyists (unlikely) or change how our government operates (even less likely), we are stuck with a government that talks a big talk but rarely achieves much of anything.