The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)
Even when we agree, system fails
When friends of the United States abroad enumerate aspects of our politics they simply can’t understand, I’ve found they often point to the inability of our democracy to deal comprehensively with the mass slaughter our permissive gun laws enable.
Every new outrage — including the recent incidents in Arkabutla, Miss., El Paso and at Michigan State University — is met with mass mourning, tears, prayers and anger. And legislative gridlock. What kind of country sits by while its people are mowed down by gunfire?
The answer, which extends to other issues, lies in a breakdown of our governing system’s ability to reflect majority opinion. This dysfunction is rooted in the peculiarities of our party coalitions, our flawed system of representation, the power of veto groups, and the transformation of so many issues into showdowns involving metropolitan areas facing off against small towns and the countryside.
The last Congress showed that when issues escape these traps, bipartisan action is possible: infrastructure improvements, investments in technology, repair of our postal system, new help for veterans and, yes, a modest step forward on guns. All won enough Republican support to become law.
A key: Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress had a political interest in bringing forward bills that benefited red and blue states alike. Infrastructure is an instructive example. Former president Donald Trump spoke so often about rebuilding roads and bridges that his “infrastructure weeks” became a standing joke. But a majority of Republicans opposed spending the kind of money a major infrastructure bill required, preventing legislation from being taken up.
It should not have required Democratic control to give the significant minority of the GOP senators who favored action a chance to vote affirmatively for infrastructure. But it did, because of the relative power of veto groups: The Republican right has a lot more veto power than does the Democratic left.
The GOP right, on principle, wants to stop anything that appears to be a move in a progressive direction. This means that the party’s ultras punish leaders who dare seek agreement with the other side.
The modest gun bill passed last year is an example of how this process often works. The law expanded background checks for prospective gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and strengthened restrictions on gun ownership by people convicted of domestic abuse. It fell well short of what’s needed, but that didn’t stop advocates of a more robust bill from supporting a measure narrow enough to get the required Republican votes in the Senate.
The Senate filibuster, requiring 60 votes on most issues, enhances the power of a minority to veto majority opinion. After the 2012 slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Senate voted 54 to 46 in favor of an amendment on background checks crafted by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), hardly a liberal duo. Those 54 senators, representing 63% of the population, were not enough to overcome an opposition speaking for just 37% of the nation. It’s hard to find a starker example of how the Senate vastly overrepresents the attitudes of rural states.
Even on immigration, a quintessentially partisan issue, a 2022 Pew Research study found substantial room for accord. A majority in both parties agreed that border security, the top GOP concern, was a high priority. But respondents also prioritized “taking in civilian refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war (72%) and allowing immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S. and apply for legal status (72%).”
Pulling these goals together could lead to progress. But the right wing is so powerful in the House that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is having trouble passing an immigration bill with no chance in the Senate because it’s too punitive for moderate conservatives in his own party.
Many blame our problems on “polarization,” and it’s true that both parties have become more ideologically coherent. But not equally so. According to Gallup, 54% of Democrats call themselves liberal, while fully 72% of Republicans call themselves conservative. You don’t have to like Democrats to see why they have more reason to meet in the middle than Republicans do.
As long as the forces encouraging gridlock remain so strong, compromises favored by large majorities of Americans will be stillborn. That’s a challenge to democracy — and it’s a deadly problem for a nation with more guns than people.