After Representative Giffords was shot they said it would change the politics on gun control in
This year I have already given several dozen talks on the 2016 elections, seeking to make sense of the politics this year. To do that I have drawn a contrast, examining how American politics has changed since 1976 compared to today. My discussion begins with drawing a bell curve. The curve represents the distribution of American public opinion in 1976. If one were to look at a series of survey s or polls we would find that the vast majority of public opinion converged toward the center. Yes there were some far right and left voters, but a large percentage of the public shared a powerful consensus on a range of social, economic, and foreign policy issues.
With the majority of the public sharing similar views, it also made sense for the Republican and Democratic Parties to nominate centrist candidates. After all, that it were most voters were and if you want to win nominate candidate centrist candidates. In many ways, in 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were good examples of that; two candidates who ideologically were not that far apart.
Additionally, we know back in 1976 that both the Democrat and Republican Parties were more coalitional and less ideological than today. There were liberal Republicans in NY and New England and conservative Democrats in the South. The two major parties had liberal, moderates, and conservatives among their ranks. Such ideological diversity made bipartisanship possible and in 1976 the percentage of straight party-line votes was quite small compared to today. Additionally, in 1976 political scientists estimated that about one-third of the 435 US House of Representative seats came from swing districts–those where either a Democrat or a Republican could be elected. It was these swing districts too which helped drive bipartisanship. Representatives there had an incentive to work across the aisle–become too partisan on one side and you would lose an election to someone on the other side.
But 40 years later politics has changed. Today the state of public opinion looks more like a camel’s back–a double hump curve. The percentage of voters describing themselves as moderate has decreased and the percentage saying they a liberal or conservative has increased (although those who say they are very conservative has increased far more than those who say extremely liberal). This means that the center of the Republican and Democratic parties is moving apart from one another and that within each party candidates who wish to win their nomination must increasingly appeal to where their shifting bases have moved.
Why the electorate has bifuricated and sorted itself out in such a way that partisanship and ideology overlap is a product of many factors. These include the embracing of civil rights by the Democrats, social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, generational shifts, and economics. All this has contributed to a sorting. But another sorting is occurring–geography.
At the same time that America has become more conservative and liberal it has also become more segregated many ways, including politically. We now politically sort ourselves out with Democrats choosing to live in the cities and inner-ring suburbs, Republicans in outer-ring suburbs and rural areas. The Red and Blue states the media describes really are red and blue cities, regions, even streets and blocks. We wish to live near others who share our political views and avoid those with whom we disagree.
We have created overwhelming Republican and Democratic areas. Nationally now the best estimates are that barely 20-25 House seats are swing. Instead 95% are securely one party. Candidates from these safe seats have no incentive to compromise politically and if they do they will get primaried from the right if a Republican or from the left if a Democrat. Geography reinforces and exacerbates partisanship and extremism.
The result is that now there are fewer bipartisan bills and a greater percentage of straight party-line votes than in 1976. Evidence suggests that the most conservative Democrat now is still more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Fewer swing districts and more safe seats mean polarization.
One result is that there is a cluster of core issues over which there is manor disagreement. One example is guns. There are some regions of the US where there is strong support for gun control and some where there is not. These are areas where guns are and are not part of its culture. Representatives from the gun regions in so many ways are actually representing their constituents interests in the same way were those from the non-gun regions represent their voters.
Simply put, representatives in areas such as the south or rural areas have little political incentive to support gun control. If they do they face political reprisals from within their party. On top of that, the NRA supports these candidates, occupying a powerful interest group role to reinforcing Republican, rural, and outer ring-suburban opposition to gun control.
Those who favor gun control include urban dwellers, people of color, women, and Democrats. They do not live in the Republican areas or at least in sufficient numbers to matter politically, or they do not vote sufficiently Republican to move Republican voters.
Now consider Orlando. It is perhaps an issue about LGBT phobia and how someone targeted a gay night club. This issue might move some but think about it–how many in the LGBT community are voting Republican, identify Republican, or even live in Republican areas in sufficient numbers to move Republican Congressional members? To be blunt: LGBT issues are not the kind that receive support from the Republican community and casting Orlando as such will not change the political debate or vote . In addition, because the killer was Muslim it implicates another set of wedge issues, terrorism and Islamaphobia, there too is little indication that it will alter the political debate and forces within many pro-gun districts to support ne gun regulations.
Overall, the simple point here is that there is little chance that Orlando will change the debate and politics on gun control. The one slight chance is that if the LGBT community can unite with other gun regulation forces, creating a powerful bloc of voters to challenge the NRA. But even them it will require this new bloc to leverage political power in areas where there is little support for LGBT issues and a lot for guns. Until and unless this happens, do not look to Orlando to change the politics of gun control.