Can electoral politics save us? On guns and voting, our democracy is broken

For proof that American democracy is broken, look no further than the failure to pass gun bills

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 24, 2021 1:01PM (EDT)

View of demonstrators, many with signs, as they participate in the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence, near Columbus Circle, New York, New York, March 24, 2018. Among the visible signs are ones that read 'Who Would Have to Die from Gun Violence Before You Would Support Gun Control?' and 'No More Silence End Gun Violence.' (Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
View of demonstrators, many with signs, as they participate in the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence, near Columbus Circle, New York, New York, March 24, 2018. Among the visible signs are ones that read 'Who Would Have to Die from Gun Violence Before You Would Support Gun Control?' and 'No More Silence End Gun Violence.' (Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Ted Cruz just had another one of his many childish tantrums, this time over the indignity of having to care if the Americans he was elected to govern live or die. The bodies of the ten shot dead by a gunman on Monday in Boulder, Colorado were hardly cold, yet Cruz was far more concerned about the tender feelings of gun nuts.

"After every mass shooting," he whined, "Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens," holding it out as self-evidently preposterous that someone might want to stop such crimes before they happen. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing Tuesday was a direct response not just to the Boulder shooting, but the one in Atlanta, Georgia that left eight dead just the week before. Cruz's implication that Democrats are just trying to exploit the news cycle, however, is flat out false. Just days before the Atlanta shooting, Democrats in the House passed two bills meant to close down loopholes in the federal background check system.

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Background checks help but are an incomplete solution. Ideally, the U.S. would implement a near-total ban, coupled with a buyback program, like the ones that have worked in Australia and New Zealand. Still, background checks are indisputably popular. 

In response to misinformation being spread on social media by an NRA talking head earlier this month, Politifact looked over the polling data on universal background checks and found that support wasn't just robust, but wildly so. Depending on the wording of the question, polls in 2019 and 2020 found support for the policies in the Democratic bills ranging from 83-93% of the public. Not only is the idea popular with Democrats, but also Republican voters. NPR's 2019 poll, for instance, found 79% support for universal background checks with Republicans. Similarly, 70% of voters — including a majority of GOP voters — support banning assault weapons, such as the AR-15 recovered at the scene of the Boulder shooting. 

The reality is that only about 10% of Americans are Lauren Boebert types, that is to say such fanatical right-wing zealots as to flip out at even the most reasonable restriction on gun purchases. Most everyone else in the country would like it to be slightly harder for wife beaters and would-be school shooters to get their hands on weapons of mass death. But despite the Democratic bill polling at ice cream and puppies levels, the general opinion in the political media is there is no way it will become law.  

The most immediate reason is the filibuster, which gives the Republican minority in the Senate veto power over most legislation the Democratic majority would want to pass. In theory, Democrats could — and most want — to reform the filibuster so that it's not an all-purpose veto point for the minority. Unfortunately two Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona — continue to foolishly insist that keeping the filibuster is good for "bipartisanship," even though the reality is that it allows Republicans to unilaterally determine what passes, despite being the minority. 

The larger problem is that the entire federal system has been tilted in such a way as to give conservative voters a disproportionate amount of representation. Democrats in the House won more votes than Republicans in the 2020 election, but somehow still lost a dozen seats. Democrats in the Senate represent 41.5 million more people than Republicans, but only have half the seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. If Democratic representation in Congress reflected who voters actually vote for, Democrats would have all the votes in the Senate they need to end the filibuster, even without Manchin and Sinema. 

The problem is that all this procedural and legal analysis is both boring and too complicated for anyone who isn't a total political buff to follow. So a lot of voters don't understand how thoroughly broken the system is, beyond some general sense that politicians are incapable of getting anything done. There's a real danger, then, that voters will blame Democrats, and not the larger system, for the gridlock. Indeed, that's what Republicans are counting on, which is why they obstruct every bill, no matter how popular it is. The hope is Democratic voters will get disillusioned and give up even bothering to vote — and there's a very good chance it will work. 

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The For the People Act has been and should remain the topline Democratic priority because it directly addresses some of the anti-democratic obstacles that make it hard for voter opinions to be heard in D.C. It is, however, a complicated issue that is hard to explain in soundbites. It's hard to quickly explain to confused voters how Biden's victory doesn't disprove the fact that Democrats face an unfair playing field. The whole issue involves math and statistics, often complex ones, which are notorious for turning people's attention off. 

With the gun control issue, however, Democrats are looking at either a serious threat or a major opportunity, depending on how they handle it. The issue is both attention-getting — nearly everyone in the country is attuned to the threat of mass shootings — and straightforward. People are getting guns who shouldn't be getting guns. The vast majority of Americans oppose it. This should be simple. If any issue illustrated how the system is tilted to favor a minority — in this case, a minority of only 10% of Americans! — over the majority, it's this issue. 

Passing voting rights legislation is key, of course. But the gun control bill, due to its simplicity and popularity, may be even more effective at capturing public attention and highlighting for voters how broken our system is and how obstructionist Republicans really are. It might also be useful to help Manchin and Sinema understand how badly they're failing voters if they can't even get a bill backed by 90% of people — talk about bipartisanship! — through the Senate. 

Failure to pass a universal background check through the Senate could do the opposite, illustrating to voters that nothing they care about matters to politicians in D.C. And while technically it's true that the answer to the dilemma is for voters to redouble efforts to elect more Democrats, preventing a couple of obstruction-friendly holdouts from gumming up the works, the reality is that's not how voter psychology works. It's very difficult for people to keep going in the face of failure. They need proof their efforts matter — and a popular gun bill passing would be that proof. 

A recent report from the democracy watchdog group Freedom House shows a precipitous drop in the U.S. ranking among world democracies, dropping 11 points so that it's no longer ranked among nations like the United Kingdom and Germany, but instead has slipped to where countries like Romania and Poland rank. Frankly, that may still be too generous, considering how it's become impossible to pass even broadly popular and commonsensical laws like universal background checks. The chance to change the narrative and reinvigorate American democracy is now. Can Democrats pass a bill supported by 90% of Americans? Or has our democracy failed to the point where even that is impossible? 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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