Saturday, December 15, 2012

Democrats: Own Gun Control

Everyone knows that the political winds are shifting.  This is natural.  The political pendulum swings, there are long-term self-corrections.  It's also striking how quickly people, when considered as a very large group, come around to a new idea once a "tipping point" arrives: a big majority opposes legal marijuana for years, until one day it doesn't.  Civil rights for gay people is the cause of a few "radicals" for decades until one day suddenly there's a majority of people saying "Well of course civil rights for gay people!  What were we thinking?"  And those who said "Over my dead body" also have a way of adapting, of revising their own emotional history along with the communal story.  Most of the action here is cultural.  Politically speaking, the bottom line is that someone has to win, not one, but a series of election cycles to turn the battleship around.

A political party, in order to appeal to people's imaginations, needs a coherent political philosophy, a way of looking at politics that is consistent and systematic, and that can be easily understood.  This ideological coherence doesn't make a party necessarily either good or successful, but it helps enormously, as the history of presidential politics since the 1960s shows.  The long decline of the Democrats and the long dominance of the Republicans, the height of which was the Reagan 80s, was characterized by the popularizing of a very clear line of conservative thought with two strands, right-libertarian economic ideas and traditional fundamentalist social ideas.  This combination tapped in to basic American mythology and was convenient for the business community.

The Democrats, meanwhile, easily baited as "socialists" vs. "capitalists," and with a bad relationship with a relatively small left wing (whereas the Republicans had a good relationship with a relatively large right wing), found themselves unable to articulate an overall ideology that was systematic enough to suggest strategies.  They were defined by their opponents as the "tax and spend" party.  Republicans ran on economics and security and won again and again.  But the GOP did have a weakness: to keep the Reagan coalition together lots of red meat had to be thrown to the social conservatives.  Older Republicans like Nixon, Goldwater, Ford and Reagan didn't really care that much about fundamentalist notions about abortion, homosexuality and so on.  But the better politicians among them saw the political benefits of taking up these causes.  Later the Bushes, emulating a successful Reagan tactic, loaded the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy with Christian activists and other conservative advocates.  It was good political insurance for these mainstream politicians.  But it translated into real changes in social policy and into real radicalization of the GOP, and now, naturally, inevitably, there is a Democratic opening.

The breakthrough of 2012 included the reelection and therefore Democratic ratification of Obama, but it also was a matter of Democrats losing some fear, taking some risks, and seeing those risks pay off.  Specifically Democrats chose to "own" (as in embrace fully and publicly) gay civil rights, and to reinforce the party's commitment to women's rights (this was handed to them by an out-of-control misogynistic solar flare of some sort from the Republicans that kept erupting from the mouth of old white man after old white man all year), and, more vaguely, "immigration reform" which has suddenly come to mean doing good things to immigrants instead of bad things.  This show of boldness paid off handsomely for the Democratic Party.  A Democratic coalition based in identity politics shows every sign of being able to beat a Republican Party with a single constituency.

And that brings me to the point of this column, today.  No need to dilate on the point much: the Democratic Party should own gun control.  It should step up to the fight with a clear identity and purpose, not radical, but identifying the most outrageous excesses of the present situation and pledging to take action to reform it.  And put that to the voters, nationally and statewide in many states, and the Democrats will go on winning.  Go ahead, take the chance.  Now is the time.