The Left’s Failure to Enact Gun Control Exposes Its Tactical Weakness

There is a broadening schism in the activist community between those who focus on nuts-and-bolts electoral and legislative politics, and those who spend their energy on issue-area visibility and engagement. Much like the storied separation between hacks and wonks, the rift between the two camps has been growing wider over the years. Within the Netroots activist community the visbility and engagement crowd championed by most progressive NGOs has been gaining dominance, even as the “take over the Democratic Party” faction inspired by Howard Dean has been shunted to the side as an afterthought. It’s not uncommon these days to see “disruption” touted as the highest activist calling, even as success is measured not in terms of votes won or laws passed but by petitions signed and social media posts shared. Election work and party involvement is increasingly seen as the unhip, uncool, morally compromised province of social climbers and “brogressives” not truly committed to the supposedly “real work” of social justice engagement by non-electoral means.

I’ve been in both camps over the years myself, as both a progressive blogger and Democratic campaign activist. There is certainly great value in persuasion, engagement and visibility model. But the issue of gun control provides an excellent example of why I find the recent and growing hostility to the Howard Dean model deeply misguided and more than a little troubling.

On most issues a majority of voters agree with liberal positions. These progressive stances are actually also held by a majority of Democratic legislators–but usually not quite enough to overcome an alliance between holdout conservative Democrats and the Republicans. The electoral theory of change suggests if one elects more Democrats in place of Republicans and, more importantly, more progressive Democrats in place of the bad ones, better legislation will follow. By contrast, engagement and visibility theory suggests that people need to be informed and persuaded about issues to grow support, then urged to disrupt and annoy their legislators such that those legislators will be shamed into action they would otherwise avoid.

But gun politics in the United States shows above all the weaknesses and limits of the engagement model. The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws. Some basic provisions are even supported by a majority of Republicans, yet never get passed into law. Numerous organizations have engaged in countless petitions and demonstrations to shame legislators into action from a variety of perspectives, but it essentially never works. And frankly, if the grieving parents of dozens of dead children aren’t enough to shame centrist and conservative legislators, it’s difficult to think that anything less obviously outrageous could.

The reason that the United States cannot seem to do anything about guns is simply that the NRA and the vocal minority of the nation’s gun owners mobilize to vote on the issue, while the large majority that favors gun safety laws does not. Politicians of good will fear the NRA, and for good reason. Politicians of bad will do not fear the Brady Campaign or MoveOn.org. The NRA has the ability to unseat legislators who don’t do its bidding. The Brady Campaign does not. Moveon.org does not. It’s really that simple.

That’s not for lack of funding, but rather from lack of will. Liberal organizations often have the funding to accomplish the electoral organizing that conservative organizations perform. They simply choose not to put their energies there, either because primarying bad Democrats seems too aggressive or because visibility and engagement politics are somehow seen as a purer and more legitimate form of activism.

Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in field–that much maligned, unsexy work of precinct walking and phonebanking–to mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people. That is how the Tea Party accomplishes its goals: not by visibility protests or list-building campaigns, but by making examples of “RINO” Republicans and putting hardcore conservatives in their place. Many Democrats see that as “extremist” and bad form. But it isn’t. The Tea Party is extremist because of its positions, not because of its tactics.

The left has no choice but to do likewise if it wishes to succeed. Until then, nothing will change. More petitions and social media campaigns will accomplish precisely nothing.

Because politicians don’t really respond to shame. They respond to votes. Corporate money is only effective because politicians believe (often erroneously) that it will influence votes. Ultimately, it’s the votes that matter. Left-of-center organizations and their donors would do well to remember that.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.