Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

How the NRA Shifted the Debate: Or One Way Conservatives are Better at Politics

with 2 comments

I’ve harped here on the notion, both popular and academic, that ‘talk’ doesn’t matter – that decisions are the key unit of politics, they are action, driven by some set of fundamental forces, unaffected by interactions among people. This is connected to an idea I’ve called democratic efficiency: that public opinion translates automatically into public policy, like a political market (market here being the imagined one of economic theory rather than anything that exists in the real world). This position renders the vast bulk of political activity nonsensical, but it has the handy consequence of ensuring that any outcome is explainable–some set of actors or policies won out because they were favored (probably by the voters), the proof being that said actors or policies won out. It’s circular, of course, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

I was thinking about this while observing the response to the horrific shooting in Newtown.  Many liberals took the shooting as license to demand gun control, something that has been verboten for quite some time. (There has also been a good deal of discussion of mental health, which on its own is a good thing but somewhat troubling as an anti-violence strategy, but let’s leave that aside).  At the same time, numerous conservatives announced their own support for things like arming teachers.

The result was, unfortunately, predictable. Where liberals had been discussing something that had at least some connection to this tragedy, and to the larger issue of violence (which I would hope we could see is larger than the issue of school shootings), and were perhaps inching towards the broader issue, conservatives responded with a suggestion so loony it makes you wonder how it was delivered with a straight face.  Then liberals shifted, and much of the discussion switched to the question of whether teachers should be armed. Thankfully, they have largely concluded they shouldn’t be (although I still expect to hear they should be from Slate). But even when the main point is how off the wall the right is on this issue, it still means not talking about what we would do about it – we’re still allowing them to set the terms of the debate.  The possibility of progressive framing of the issue and progressive policy responses gets crowded out.

Today at the NRA’s press conference, they took a more scatter shot approach.

CEO Wayne LaPierre blamed many things in his press conference for the influx of mass shootings in the U.S. — everything from gun-free school zones, the media, movies, violent video games, hurricanes, and a lack of government funding.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

 And of course, the intertubes are atwitter condemning this stuff. (Missing from that quote is the NRA’s call for a nation-wide database of the mentally ill, a truly terrifying possibility.) Again, by taking an extreme position, by not allowing liberal framing to influence their response at all, the NRA and its allies very successfully shifted the debate.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting this sort of thing (or anything) can’t be taken too far. The right tends to take things farther than they should. This moment feels different from past one’s, and maybe the NRA will find itself isolated and weakened. That said, I doubt ALEC, which has played a major role in pushing bad gun legislation at the states, will be tainted nor would the NRA’s demise necessarily mean a sea change in gun safety policy.

But for much of the left, we seem perpetually to be responding within the terms set by the right.  And while part of that is the deadening influence of neoliberalism, this episode shows part of it is the difference in strategy between the left and the right.  Until we’re willing to demand that others respond to questions rooted in our concerns and our values, we will necessary be operating from a position of weakness.  And not only are people less inclined to do it, but we’re institutionally ill-equipped to do it as well. These things, unsurprisingly, are mutually reinforcing.

* I don’t mean to suggest that these sort of off the wall ideas only exist on what passes for the political right.  Senator Barbara Boxer has floated the idea of deploying the National Guard to schools. Punishment as policy is deep in the DNA of left neoliberalism as much as it is in conservatism.

Written by David Kaib

December 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Gun control and mental health are weak discourse because they skirt a more fundamental problem: White men are shooting up schools, theaters and shopping malls at an alarming rate. The issue is male violence. Holding a press conference and saying flat out, “We have white male crime problem in this country” would’ve shifted the debate as much as Wayne La Pierre’s statement. Unfortunately, as so many liberals are males themselves, they’d rather talk about anything but that.


    December 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    • I’d go further and say the issue is violence. A big part of that is these sorts of mass shootings, but it’s important to focus on “routine” gun killings in urban areas, intimate partner violence / coercive control, as well as the use of violence as a policy tool. Still, facing up to that would necessarily mean addressing the racial and gender dynamics here, and I think you’re right about part of why that’s not happening – white males generally don’t want to ask these questions. That said, the tendency to argue within conservative frames is a problem that exists across the board for progressives, even on issues that don’t connect as directly to white male privilege.

      David Kaib

      December 27, 2012 at 2:57 pm

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