Two issues that have grabbed post-election headlines were gun control and filibuster reform. The first got attention, of course, due to the tragedy of the shooting deaths of some twenty schoolchildren in Newton, CT -- only the latest in a long string of mass murders by guns in America. The second was prompted by the growing realization that the Senate has become entirely unable to function, mainly because of the supermajority requirement of the filibuster. Nonetheless, prospects for substantive reform in each area are dead or dying.
In the Senate, despite calls to scrap or strictly limit the filibuster, the initial reform proposals were weak. The strongest was the “talking filibuster,” which only aimed to restore the traditional practice of requiring the opposition to actually stand up and talk for hours or days to hinder the passage of legislation, rather than continue with the current practice that allows stoppage with the mere threat of a filibuster. That reform would not have been good enough, as it would only take us back to the way things were in the mid-twentieth century when the filibuster was routinely used to delay civil rights laws to protect African Americans and other oppressed minorities. Indeed, historically the filibuster has mainly not been used to stop unjust laws, but to perpetuate injustice for generation upon generation. That is the main reason it needs to go into the dustbin of history, and that fact also puts the lie to the common argument of some centrists and center-leftists: “When it comes down to brass tacks, even the left wants to preserve the filibuster, so they can block legislation they don’t like when they are in the minority.” But in our political culture the filibuster has normally been biased asymmetrically against reforms from the left, and only rarely to block egregious laws from the right. If you tallied up the pace of progress over the decades we would be far further along today if we had never had the filibuster, even if an occasional piece of right-wing lunacy would have gotten through (which without the filibuster could more easily be repealed anyway later). Yet even the modest reforms proposed for the Senate at the beginning of this term went essentially nowhere. All we’ll see is a few procedural adjustments that will not end the right’s ability to prevent needed legislation from moving forward.
Similarly, gun violence has been a huge problems costing the very lives of tens of thousands in America for decades now. Other countries long ago dealt with this horrific problem in the very sane, rational, and obvious way, by severely restricting access to firearms in their countries. In Australia, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre of 35 people led to mandatory licensing, a 28-day waiting period, requirement of a genuine reason for firearm possession (such as pest control or hunting), and other restrictions. Great Britain took a similar approach after the Dunblane massacre. These countries found that safety is not a matter of putting more guns on the streets in the fantasy that criminals will fear victims, nor is it a matter of improving the level of civility and politeness in society or some other such tripe. They found that it was a matter of gun control. America needs to follow the sanity of their example and protect its citizens with a rational approach to gun control, but this has been prevented by the false ideas of a minority who identify their freedom, personal power, and often masculinity with the ownership of a weapon of death, and by their representatives in the gun lobby, primarily the National Rifle Association.
Their obfuscations are complex and many, but let me just address two. First, the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Second Amendment permits a nearly unlimited individual right to gun ownership is simply historically false: the amendment clearly refers to owning weapons in the context of a “well regulated militia” intended to keep the peace. If you belong to the National Guard or Reserves, where you are trained in the handling of firearms and where your weapons are locked up in the unit’s armory, then you’re good to go; otherwise, local, state, and federal governments clearly have the right to regulate and limit the ownership of dangerous weapons of death. Second, the idea that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is so stupidly simplistic that it beggars belief: guns are industrial-era machines designed to destroy, and by design they make it much, much easier to kill large numbers of people -- just as lathes, presses, power tools, and other industrial-era machines make it easier to produce things. We regulate and control factory equipment for the safety of the public, and we can legitimately do so for guns, too.
In short, the solutions to these problems are not unknown, but are staring us right in the face. This is not a matter of ignorance, for we already know what the solutions are. In the case of gun violence, the solution is rational gun control. In the case of the filibuster, the solution is to eliminate it.
If we know what changes need to be made, then what stops reform?
The problem is a lack of collective political will to carry out and effect real reforms in public policy. When I say collective political will, I mean the will of the body politic: the “will” of society in the sense of the consensus decision of the majority. Determining the preferences of the majority of the people can sometimes be a bit complex, but it’s not really that hard: we have plenty of political opinion polling that shows us that on a great many issues the country is actually center-left, despite not liking to call themselves “liberal,” and if we had a political culture free of the obfuscations of powerful and wealthy interests in which people had more opportunity to deliberatively consider political questions, there is plenty of reason to believe that even more would find ideas of the left even more appealing, from financial reform to education funding to worker protection to economic democracy to environmental issues.
But I also mean collective political will in the sense of having the determination to see reform made real as the binding law of the land, and effectively implemented as public policy. This requires individual determination, activism, organization. It also requires leadership by those in political power: the president, members of congress, state lawmakers, political party leaders and activists. It cannot only be bottom-up and grass-roots: there has to be real organizational leadership from the top, and real and effective connections between activists who support reforms and those who can make those reforms into law.
The lack of political will in our culture has different, but related causes:
First, some bad ideas block good changes. Conservatism as a whole has done so for decades out of nostalgia, politicized religion, a bias for the interests of commerce over those of the people, and other reasons. But they have been assisted by centrist enablers who buy into their framing of the issues and into many of their solutions, to a degree. This creates ideological blind spots that prevent reform; for example, proposals for economic changes that are not statist are often interpreted through the “capitalism vs. communism” false dichotomy, ignoring the fact that many reforms simply don’t fit into the framing of that dichotomy but are about restructuring institutions in a way that benefits all.
Second, entrenched interests actively block necessary change, through a variety of methods, including money-based lobbying and influence over political campaigns. They have the money and other resources to slow or stop reform. They also use these resources to propagate and promote the bad ideas I just mentioned and thus interests and ideas are interrelated.
What to do? The first step is for centrists to wake up and realize when they’re buying into bad ideas. If you really want to see fewer little kids getting shot, then you should as a rule of thumb always have a strong bias towards supporting the sort of real gun control that has worked elsewhere. If you really want to see government work better, then as a rule of thumb you should denounce supermajority practices that hamper effective government, including the filibuster. We’re unlikely to see leadership for real change from our political leaders, unfortunately; what we will get are watered-down proposals that look good on TV but do not challenge entrenched interests or ideologies.
Ultimately, “political will” for real reform means this: The left has to engage in the hard slog of building a critical mass of the people that will support real reform. Until that happens we will only see cosmetic changes. So the thing to do is to work towards it!
As I’ve said before, we could change the world starting tomorrow, nothing stands in the way but ourselves.