How Politics Really Work

The recent defeat of all efforts at gun control is shocking, given the fact that 90 percent of Americans supported the measures. How could that happen?

The key is the power of self-interest. It didn’t matter so much what the senators actually thought about the bills. What mattered was the risk to their political careers. “The measure never really had a chance,” concluded The New York Times. It was not only the strength of Republican resistance and the opposition of the NRA. It was “the political anxiety of vulnerable Democrats from conservative states.” (See, “Gun Control Effort Had No Real Chance, Despite Pleas.”)

Most Americans will chalk this up to “politics,” of course, and fall back on their mistrust of “politicians.” That’s not wrong, but what does it actually mean? What is it about politicians that makes them, well, “politicians” – always looking over their shoulders, so often unable to do the right thing?

As Basil Smikle, an adjunct professor Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, put it: “the hard truth is that many legislators are concerned with re-election rather than building consensus around issues that preoccupy their constituents.” Their ostensible job is to serve the interests of those they represent, to pass laws that enhance the prosperity, safety, and essential needs of citizens. But their primary aim is actually their own re-election, the continuation of their own careers. That’s what their self-interest boils down to. (See, “When Senators Defy the Voters.”)

No doubt, then, they must have believed popular opinion in favor of enhanced gun control would not translate into votes — and they are probably right, as that is what they continually study. Moreover, they may well believe that the virulence and financial clout of the gun lobby would cost them votes had they approved any of these bills. Certainly it would make them targets in future campaigns. But it is almost certain that calculations of self-interest carried the day.

To be sure, there can be differences of opinion about the effectiveness of particular pieces of legislation, and how they will actually affect gun violence. But that is not what this is about.

We debate the issues as if the actual language of the bills matters. And senators talk that way, pretending that the issues really matter, that their votes are based on what they really thought, rather that calculations about re-election. And frankly, we go along with this most of the time because we would prefer to believe that there is rationality and logic in our system. We would like to believe that the course of public events can be influenced by thoughtful, well–intentioned people working together to arrive at a consensus.

But the real shock when the gun control bills went down to defeat was that the curtain of rationality that hides the workings of our system has been ripped away. We see our democracy in action.