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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guns and the Future of the GOP

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History is replete with milestones and turning points. We have arrived at another, for the country and for the GOP.

This one is centered on the Second Amendment. The debate rages about its meaning, intent, and relevancy in a modern world and, in the wake of yet another tragic shooting, what to do about gun violence. The burden and judgement of history, in my opinion, now rests squarely on the shoulders of the Republican party, not the president.
Public consensus seems clear. When polled, Americans say they want more checks in place before guns can be purchased. We also are saying that we want fewer - not more - dangerous weapons in the hands of ordinary civilians.

Ignoring Reality
The leadership of the GOP seems to be ignoring reality yet again. They've done so at nearly every turn since the 2008 election cycle, the short-lived and fading Tea Party movement that disrupted the GOP and elections in 2010 notwithstanding.

On some level, it seems to be getting worse. A party willing to give any consideration at all to the likes of a Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum is already difficult to take seriously. Mitt Romney, by most accounts, was the least offensive choice they could present.

On the issue of gun violence, Republicans who now insist on adding public concerns and sentiments about guns to the growing list of realities and shifting societal norms and values they choose to ignore do so not only at their own peril, but they put their entire party at peril for the 21st century.

The reelection of President Obama seems not to have taught Republican leaders a thing except that the more extreme the position they take, the more airtime they'll get with Fox. They truly seem intent on listening only to and parroting the most extreme voices. This time those voices belong to Wayne LaPierre and David Keene of the NRA. Republican leaders are choosing them over their rank-and-file members and even over those Republicans who self-identify as NRA members.

So how is it possible in the wake of so many gun-related tragedies that elected leaders from the Republican party are not uniform in their support for ANY proposals from the president to reduce gun violence?

Is there a turning point in the history of the GOP that helps to answer this question, and that helps to inform us about what the question about gun legislation reveals about the underlying beliefs that have guided the party's thinking into the present day and possibly into its future?

First, What the Pubic Is Saying About Guns
As Juan Williams of Fox News pointed out on January 16th (1), polling shows very clear consensus about what Americans think we should do on issues such as background checks and high-capacity magazines.

   "A USA Today/Gallup poll taken last month found that 92 percent of Americans favor a background check for every gun purchase in the United States and only 7 percent opposed it. According to the same poll, 62 percent say the approved of a ban on the sale and possession of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 bullets while 35 percent disapprove.

  "A Pew poll from earlier this week found similar results.

  "According to Pew, 85% of Americans, a roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, favor universal background checks on gun buyers including at gun shows. The survey also found that preventing people with mental illness from buying guns is backed by 80% of Americans, including 86% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats.

  "In opposing these common-sense gun safety measures under consideration by President Obama, the NRA is not only at odds with the general public, it is also at odds with its own membership.

   "After the shooting in Aurora, Colorado this summer, Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a nationwide survey of gun owners who are members of the NRA. Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners support background checks on every gun sale. The poll also found that 79 percent of NRA members and 80 percent of non-NRA gun owners support requiring gun retailers to perform background checks on all employees."

Given this data, how is it possible that Republicans aren't putting petty partisan politics aside and embracing new regulations and laws to curb gun violence?

Why aren't they distancing themselves from the NRA and their desire to arm even more citizens in more places and with ever more lethal firepower?

What legacy does the GOP want to have on the issue of gun violence?

Perhaps most importantly, what are NRA members and faithful Republicans across the board demanding from their elected officials and party leaders on the question about what to do to reduce gun violence in light of what they're purported to be telling Gallup and Pew?

An Historical Turning Point for the GOP
How did the party of Lincoln turn into a party which, big money and influence aside for the moment (2), become so willing to knuckle under to extremists at the NRA, an organization which, I'm learning, has itself been severally radicalized in recent times (3)?

Is there a milestone in Republican party history that can shed more light on how the GOP has become a party seemingly entrenched in antiquated and unpopular views, and incapable of compromise on any level?

As part of my research, I found an article titled "The Dismal Future of the GOP" published by Forbes in 2009 (4). It's author justifiably laments the lose of moderate voices in the Republican party and, hence, its loss of moderate voters.

It's unreasonable, of course, to expect any single article to cover every single milestone and turning point of history. Still, I think the author, Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, a Treasury official under President George H. W. Bush, and the author of "Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action" and "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy" neglected to cover one of the most critically important factors in the transformation - and, hence, the decline  - of the GOP. That critically important factor was Barry Goldwater and his political calculus in the 1964 presidential campaign (5).

Southern Democrats, still feeling the sting 100 years on of Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the defeat in the Civil War were still using violence and intimidation to suppress minorities. This wing of the Democratic party was still insisting on seating all-white delegates at the Democratic National convention. Putting the KKK aside, Southern Democrats were responding favorably to and electing racists like Alabama's Democratic governor and presidential hopeful, George Wallace, who was infamous for statements such as, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Racists not only in the Southern wing of the Democratic party but throughout the country were targeted and pursued by Goldwater as part of his "white backlash" strategy in the 1964 campaign. Goldwater (who, according to accounts, is not thought to have been a racist himself) accomplished nothing except the migration of the South from Democratic to Republican control. This was a turning point for the Republican party, making it the party focused primarily on matters important mostly to whites.

1964, therefore, is a very clear and important milestone in the history of the Republican party and its relevance in American politics. White America, including and especially those in the South who had for the previous 100 years used violence and intimidation to keep minorities subjugated and away from primaries and elections, came to see the GOP as a party whose platform included, besides smaller government (which tends to hurt poor and minorities the most), a clear opposition to civil rights. (A quick search on YouTube reveals interviews of Goldwater talking about his opposition to civil rights legislation. It's almost as easy as finding Ayn Rand videos railing against Christianity.)

For Mr. Bartlett to leave Goldwater and 1964 out of his review of the GOP's history and the role that race still plays now and in the party's future is, in my opinion, inconceivable and could only be deliberate. I guess he was willing to go only so far in his critique of his party.

Guns and the GOP's Golden Opportunity
Which brings me back to the current issue of gun violence, gun control, and why the GOP seems intent on supporting the NRA instead of the general populace.

The undercurrent of racism - real or imagined - has been associated with the Republican party at least as far back as 1964.  One look at the demographics of the 2012 election results reinforces its disconnect outside of white America, and especially white Christian male America. If nothing else, it's mathematically correct to say that the Republican party is the party of white Evangelical men. What ought to be obvious is that relying on that demographic is and will continue to be insufficient to win national elections, and may eventually be insufficient to win elections anywhere of any consequence.

This is why the GOP's future is in peril. They seem intent on disenfranchsing everyone but white conservative Christian men. This seems to be true again on the issue of gun violence.

While I haven't looked for or seen data that makes a definitive and precise connection between their reluctance to distance themselves from the NRA and their dwindling racial diversity, it certainly does raise questions for me about the true motivations behind anything the Republican party is doing these days.

After all, we shouldn't forget that this is the party....
....who refused to distance themselves from the racist birther movement and those who questioned the president's religion, patriotism, and what it meant to be American
 ...who not only allowed our economy to be driven into the 2008 recession, but who continue to make unreasonable and unjustifiable demands for cuts to social programs that benefit the poor and aged (whose ranks, by the way, include more than just minorities) while defending and demanding tax breaks for the wealthy (and we all know who makes up the majority of that group)
....who has as their Senate leader a man who publicly stated the party's number one goal was to deny the president any policy victory, thereby creating perhaps the most ineffective Congress in history and doing incalculable damage to our recovery and to the poor and middle class
...who is responsible for state legislation around the country intended solely to make voting more difficult for minorities.

Can there be any doubt, therefore, that race (and gender) play a part in GOP thinking when it comes to gun violence? Which party is it who wants to increase the Defense budget, defund Planned Parenthood, and nationalize "Stand Your Ground" laws?

The question now about what the GOP will do (or not do) about gun violence is one more in a long line of questions about their relevance to anyone outside of a shrinking and ever more extreme subset of white America.

Cowardice and the Crossroads
The answer so far seems to be that the GOP will side with extremists inside and outside the NRA. These people all talk as if the America of the 21st century is some Hollywood version of the Wild West where good guys - always white guys, by the way - with guns kill bad guys with guns. No one is ever caught in crossfire, mistakes are never made about a suspect's guilt or innocence, and it never seems to take more than a single, well-placed, and calmly delivered shot in the most righteous of fairy tales to bring down the bad guy. (Which does beg the question about the need for extended clips, but then I remember it's to repel invading foreign armies and/or a tyrannical domestic government. I suspect the now-popular zombie apocalypse is on that same list somewhere.)

And just below the surface, there's a disturbing sort of "The Birth of a Nation" feeling to the GOP's fear mongering about Obama. The GOP still refuses to refute birthers, those who talk of "others," and those who question Obama's religion or "understanding of what it means to be American."

The cowardice of Republican leaders is tragic and on stark display. They refuse to face down the radical and extreme elements in their party and in the leadership of the NRA. In fact, they seem to relish in pandering to them. This strategy will, in my opinion, be the downfall of the Republican party in the coming decades; maybe sooner. This crisis over how to deal with the NRA will be one of the many milestones marking the end of the journey for a party whose appeal continues to slide further and further into right-wing extremist oblivion.

It's happened before. Political parties who fell out of touch and out of favor have faded into history. The GOP doesn't have to suffer this fate. They can turn it around. The challenges to the NRA on what to do about gun control would be the perfect pivot point for them. They have a golden opportunity to show Americans that they are capable not only of compromise when the health and safety of citizens is at issue, but also that they are capable of refusing to let any organization - even the NRA - bully them into taking positions that are harmful to Americans. (We can keep hoping that they'll someday do the same with Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, but that's for another post.)

The question now really is will the Republican party and their members take yet another "hard right" at this milestone and side with the NRA, or will calmer and more rational people within the Republican party prevail?

Any hope I cling to is with regular people and their courage to voice their opposition to the NRA and to vote GOP extremists out of office.

(1) "What everybody needs to know about our Constitution and gun control"

(2) "How the NRA exerts influence over Congress"

(3) "The NRA Once Supported Gun Control"

(4) "The Dismal Future of the GOP"

(5) "LBJ Fights the White Backlash; The Racial Politics of the 1964 Presidential Campaign"

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