2017 has seen 389 mass shootings in 314 days. While all agree that these events are tragedies and all too common, the necessity of political action has been the source of disagreement for politicians, and citizens, for years. This debate, and the participants on both sides, show the dangers of polarization to society, and to a nation’s democracy as a whole.
The champion of gun rights in the United States is the National Rifle Association or the NRA. The NRA’s goal is protecting the second amendment right to bear arms. While the NRA has been protecting gun owners since 1871, in recent years, it has also played a part in dividing society over the gun debate. With the increase of mass shooting in just the last decade, gun control has become a more and more divisive issue, and the NRA has gone to farther and farther lengths to allow this divide to grow.
The NRA has been very effective at utilizing the deep story Arlie Russell Hochschild presents in her book, Strangers in their Own Land, but instead of being based on the American dream, it is based upon gun rights. The NRA bases much of its rhetoric on emotion rather than fact, even down to something as simple as utilizing an ‘us vs them’ mentality in an advertisement campaign they ran in the summer of 2017. In this campaign, they validated supporter’s feelings by claiming that those who support gun control were attacking truth and reason, and subsequently taking away the common people’s only way of protecting themselves.
Potential supporters of the NRA are also usually specifically targeted by the group. The NRA sets itself along party lines and only attempts to recruit conservatives. Along with recruiting within party lines, the NRA aims to recruit mostly people who feel vilified or underrepresented by those who support gun control. NRA leaders use this dislike of liberals or Democrats to strengthen their agenda. Many of these people feel like they are unfairly called madmen or terrorist, and blamed for crimes they have no part in.
Gun control itself does not cause or prohibit the weakening of a democracy, but the American debate on gun control does have some concerning warning signs about the state of democracy in America. It is without question that a polarized polity is worse for democracy, and the NRA has done more than its fair share in splitting the American electorate.
While nowhere near all members of the Republican Party are members of the NRA, enough are either involved in the NRA or passionate enough about the gun debate for the polarization to be significant within society as a whole. Of course, the most dangerous effects of polarization can be seen with the reelection of incumbents who have skirted democratic norms, as the divided nature of society would mean that citizens are willing to vote for an undemocratic candidate in order to keep an opponent out of office. This effect has been seen to a small degree in recent American elections where it seems that some Americans are willing to vote for a candidate with questionable moral or political stances or actions in order to keep the opposite party from getting the office.
This problem can only increase if the debate over gun control continues to be as politically salient and divisive as it is in current politics, and if the NRA continues to attempt to widen the gap between those who support gun rights, and those who support stricter gun control.
Strangers in their Own Land – Arlie Russell Hochschild
Image: Brett Hondow