Sunday, June 26, 2016

In a crisis, politicians revert to serving themselves

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 26 June 2016

Earlier this week while reading all the news that’s print to fit on Facebook, I came across this posting from Twitter: “Not convinced either Democrats or Republicans want movement on gun issues. Both think it helps with base mobilization in 2016.” That’s either pretty cynical or an astute observation. Knowing the author of the tweet, and some readers will recognize the name, Kirby Goidel (formerly of the ISU political science department), I leaned toward the astute.
During Presidential elections I sometimes pretend to be an amateur political scientist. I responded to the posting but then two other real political scientists weighed in and I found the discussion fascinating. The discussion was not among partisans but one of far more objective observers, the kind that we desperately need our pundits to be, not partisan mouthpieces for the party or particular causes. Though I suppose it’s not as entertaining which seems now to be the primary currency of virtually any mass media.
I guess I am naïve. I think I have an accurate read on anyone who seeks political office beyond a local office. (I believe many people are truly civic minded and real world examples of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”) I still thought that there were enough politicians, when facing dire circumstances, natural disasters, and national tragedies like 9/11, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and now Orlando, who would come together and actually, with good will, try to fix the problem. Of course, there are still the partisan, self-serving, craven politicians, but that “enough” would set aside for a brief moment their allegiance to self, party, ideology, donors, narrow district/state differences and attempt to “fix” it. The fix might prove to be a problem, or not good enough, or an overreach (insert Patriot Act) but “enough” would get on board.
Another quote from the discussion: “… I think that there is probably a basis for a compromise on some of the issues (e.g., terror watch list), but neither side wants to move to common ground and each is content to use the issue to mobilize its base.” (James Garand). So, popular memes on social media among Democrats and their supporters is that Republicans just voted to put guns in the hands of terrorists. If Garand is correct, so did Democrats even by voting for their bills. Talk about craven! Talk about self-serving! My response to the discussion at this point was: “And this kind of calculus is probably why both parties are more negatively viewed by the public than positively and why 39 percent of folks identify as independents.”
Last week’s CNN/ORC poll showed a spike in support for “gun control,” up 9 percentage points to 55 percent. ( More surprising was the overwhelming support for specific measures. 92 percent support expanded background checks, 87 percent support a ban for felons or people with mental health problems and 85 percent would ban people on federal watch lists from buying guns. 90 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats support preventing people on the terror watch lists from buying guns. Such lopsided numbers are rare in the U.S. where we really do disagree on about everything. One would think that even the most craven politician could read those numbers as a green light. Instead, that overwhelming support is ignored.
Rahm Emanuel, a polarizing political figure if there ever was one, is immortalized on “BrainyQuotes” with this seemingly cynical but also true quote: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This was in response to the dire economic conditions at the outset of the Obama Administration. At least the Obama Administration and Congress actually did something, debate about its effectiveness notwithstanding. In the face of terrorism, domestic or international (the threat of terrorism is having its negative effects on our society), instead of a crisis creating an opportunity to do something, the idea that the parties and individual politicians may only see an opportunity to build themselves, to posture and dither cynically at the greater public’s expense only serves to create more division at rare moments when the public is briefly unified.
Somewhere someone is thinking this: “Just one more mass shooting and we can force a vote on this legislation that won’t pass so we can use it against our rivals.” If our elected officials lost some family members in a mass shooting, would that make any difference?

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