Sterling Professor of political science David Mayhew once noticed that “Probably half the adverse criticism of Congress by elites is an indirect criticism of the public itself.” Few truer observations about contemporary political discourse have been made in recent memory. The public gripes about an inactive Senate, but within that institution, there are Senators, and behind Senators, there are primary and general elections. The blame, then, is meant really for the voters themselves.
Money talks, but few issues or candidates without the potential for widespread appeal catch fire among the electorate, no matter the financial advantage: see Romney, Mitt. Similarly, some sociopolitical shifts are so great that it makes no sense to try to wage political campaigns on them, as will be the case for gay marriage for the foreseeable future.
Over the last 40 years, this same kind of a shift happened with gun politics. The popular notion that the National Rifle Association was once a gun control-loving fraternal organization is not exactly true. In fact, the NRA began vocally opposing various federal measures in the early ’70s, after originally having supported certain elements of the Gun Control Act of 1968.
But the narrative that the American voting public was in favor of stricter gun control in the past certainly is correct. Indeed, in the late ’60s, public support for tightening gun laws hovered between 60 and 70 percent.
As gun control measures were passed, and new ones were increasingly being suggested, mobilization against them grew more sophisticated. But even in 1994, 61 senators and 235 representatives (including 46 Republicans) passed a 10-year ban on specific assault weapons. But in 2004, things changed. Despite continuing violence, the political wind behind gun control was gone, revoked by the people.
Is it because ignorance in America grew? Did the people in what coastal cosmopolitans consider “flyover country” become more reactionary? A disturbing number of people I talk to at Yale think so. Certainly, opposition to gun restrictions became better organized — but, nationwide, citizens’ trust in their government also declined rapidly.
The bottom has fallen out of trust in national government. Congress’s approval rating hovers in the single digits, and a litany of surveys also find that people want private organizations and state governments to replace the federal government in a wide swath of executive functions.
This narrative of alienation has been getting louder since the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War (before then, Americans liked their government a whole lot more). It grew also as a result of the repeated squandering of political goodwill, from Johnson to Nixon to Clinton to Bush. People want to see their choices for political leaders vindicated. They tolerate one big mess, or two — but eventually, after years of disappointment, they just throw up their hands. And so, alienation invades. This is especially true for gun control legislation, where stories of government malfeasance have dominated the pro-gun discourse.
The response from steadfast supporters of the state, instead of turning a critical eye towards government waste and incompetence, has been to condescend those who’ve felt alienated. “Of course government can be trusted! Take your conspiracies elsewhere!”
PayPal founder Peter Thiel has often observed that New Deal-style engineering simply cannot be envisioned today. To wit, a very postmodern skepticism has set in about the limits of government.
The answer to this trust gap is more normativity, not less. We need more “values” rhetoric that asserts American exceptionalism and capability, and more politicians who, instead of shying away from proposing Fourteen Points or manifestos for fear of being lampooned, sketch out a vision for a new American century.
And the private vs. public distinction as it’s currently understood needs to vanish, too. Presidents kiss babies, they lead the nation in grief and they represent American vitality. If they were Politburo-style technocrats, perhaps they could live immoral personal lives. But they aren’t, and they can’t.
People’s views towards gun control were different in the second “era of good feelings” leading up to the ’70s. Yes, the NRA was a different organization then — but so was the government. No matter how reasonable the gun control regulation, a critical mass won’t be in favor if people think they are living in a banana republic.
We’re not, of course. But there’s enough government garbage to make many think so. A new era of virtuous example in leadership — and a rebirth of moral language, responsibly used — is sorely needed in today’s public discourse to reverse the “leave me alone” narrative of alienation. Only then do significant gun control laws, and an American renewal, stand a chance.
John Aroutiounian is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .