I applaud you for finding your public voice. Your activism is inspirational. But demonstrations without a plan to achieve electoral success will not result in transformative change. Politicians know we need, and the public supports, smarter gun laws. Nothing happens because we allowed partisan ideologues to hijack the political system, and they’ve left us mired in stalemate.
If you want change you need to organize an activist electoral strategy to break it. By now you will have heard that 97% of Americans support universal background checks for gun sales. Critics may call that reactionary, but even before Parkland 84% of Americans (77% of gun owners and 87% of non-gun owners) supported universal background checks, 89% of gun owners and non-gun owners supported better measures to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, and 71% (54% of gun owners and 80% of non-gun owners) supported creating a database to track gun sales. (Pew Research Center Data).
Those unfamiliar with American politics would be shocked that proposals with those numbers are labeled divisive. But similar numbers exist for other so-called “divisive” issues. (Look at the number of Americans who support secure borders but reject the border wall and support status for “Dreamers.”) Look at a political map of blue and red and you can’t help but see a polarized country divided along strict partisan lines.
But many Americans are not ideologically consistent and hold a mix of liberal and conservative views. Plenty of Democrats are critical of high taxes, government waste, over-regulation, and deficit spending. Plenty of Republicans are socially liberal, concerned with the environment and economic inequality, and support raising corporate taxes.
Why can’t we find consensus on such fertile ground for compromise? We’ve forgotten that compromise brought us our most important political accomplishments. Compromise saved the Constitution by giving states equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House. It gave us a Bill of Rights, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Great Society, Social Security Reform in ’83, tax reform in ’86, and protection from disability discrimination in the ’90s.
Our very system of government, with powers separated between federal and state governments, and branches within the government, was designed to achieve compromise. Some blame money and lobbyists for the breakdown. But they disguise the broader problem caused by a disengaged citizenry vaguely aware that something happens in politics outside federal general elections. Then, a handful show up and complain about the Hobson’s choice between a candidate they cannot support and one they have no choice but to support.
That’s what happens when you hand the keys over to the highly partisan ideological wings and embrace political tribalism. Many Americans identify as conservative or liberal, but the majority fall in the ideological middle with views that cross the center line.
But they don’t participate. Only a small number vote in general elections and smaller numbers vote in primaries where the candidates are selected. In contrast, the highly partisan ideological wings, who view the other side with animosity and distrust, are highly engaged. The candidates who emerge from primaries reflect the voters who vote in them. By then the die is cast. Since we naturally trust those in our group and are skeptical of those outside it, we cannot cross party lines and vote for “their” highly partisan ideologue over “our” highly partisan ideologue, even if we’d prefer another option because our candidate does not reflect our values.
Most politicians don’t fear punishment from the majority. They fear punishment from their base, a problem exacerbated by political gerrymandering, where the only risk to re-election is surviving a primary. The result is consistent overrepresentation of the ideologues and underrepresentation of the majority.
You can change that, but not with blind party voting. Move us past party politics into a cross-ideological or post-ideological era. Challenge the stale “wisdom” of party unity. Don’t just threaten to withhold a vote from a politician you weren’t likely to vote for. Be open to re-electing politicians who do the right thing regardless of party affiliation. Educate yourselves on the issues and test the strength of your convictions by seeking out contrary views. That’s how you gain perspective and find the nuance in issues. Then identify candidates who share your values, who can attract independents and cross-party voters, actively support their campaigns, and vote for them in primary and general elections.
Do what prior generations have failed to do: Be highly engaged citizens who disregard party loyalty and political tribalism. Do that, and you’ll break the stalemate on this issue and ignite a movement to take back the system.
Brian Holt is a resident of Oak Park.