Democrats are raging against Republicans and the system for not acting. Republicans attack Democrats because they want to act just to act. Nothing happens – until the next shooting.
But what if the Democrats made it clear what a specific path to action might look like, if voters want it to be so?
After 19 children were murdered by an 18-year-old gunman at a Texas school on Tuesday, President Biden raged at our paralysis, asking, “Why do we keep letting this happen?
Again, anger over inaction itself became part of the post-shooting ritual. As they always do, Democrats insist public grief and rage could upset Republicans this time. But they all know that won’t happen, and that further reinforces the feeling of helplessness: Why would it be different this time? Democrats don’t say, because they can’t.
Another way forward would be to declare with crystal clarity what would happen if voters elected two or three more Democratic senators: they could swear to end the filibuster and pass gun safety laws at fire (among others) immediately at the next Congress.
Right now, the filibuster may be the biggest obstacle to action. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) kicked off the process on two bills that would strengthen and tighten the federal background check system. Both made it to the House but died in the Senate.
There are probably 50 votes in the Senate to pass something like this, given that Senator Joe Manchin III supports action to fix the background check system. But the West Virginia Democrat has already said he won’t suspend the filibuster to get anything through.
Yet nearly all Democratic Senate candidates in places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio support ending or substantial reform of the filibuster. If the Democrats won two seats — tough but not impossible — there would be 50 votes to change the rules and pass some form of gun safety legislation.
That doesn’t mean giving up on the action right now. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has reignited talks with Republicans on a proposal that would close a loophole in the system that allows some salespeople to avoid conducting background checks.
This idea has some Republican support. Murphy wants to pair that with something like a “red flag” law keeping guns away from people flagged as dangerous, which also has GOP support.
“I think the odds are stacked against us getting a deal done,” Murphy told me, explaining whether 10 GOP senators might support such a compromise. “But it is not impossible.” The bills introduced by Schumer could provide a vehicle for such a proposal and start a debate in the Senate about it.
Such a deal would miss universal background checks, but it’s worth it. Still, if Republicans kill this, they’ll surely say the deal wouldn’t have prevented mass shootings like the ones in Texas or Buffalo earlier this month, where 10 victims were shot in a supermarket.
But the goal here would be to address gun violence in a much broader way. The mass shootings are a reminder of a terrible problem that extends far beyond these high-profile horrors, and on that front we are a miserable international outlier by all sorts of measures.
So for now, if Republicans can be brought into a productive debate about how to address this larger issue, let’s do it. Four GOP senators voted for a background check bill after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, but it was blocked. We should not give up on increasing this number.
“Parents and kids are scared to death right now,” Murphy told me. “Part of their anxiety is that they don’t see Congress giving a crap.”
“To face the darkness that exists in this country, we have to show that we are ready to move in the right direction,” Murphy continued.
Yet this public anxiety also underscores why Democrats should be clearer about what a specific path to success might look like if Republicans kill all compromise. Democrats should tell voters they have recourse.
Here’s yet another reason to do it: because that feeling of paralysis could be coming from something that’s deep in our system.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that such inaction is rooted in a form of “political decadence”. This decadence stems from complex processes that include the capture of interest groups and the entrenchment of patterns in our institutions that prevent them from keeping pace with changing issues.
Fukuyama says this concept of political decadence applies to the current moment. Uneven representation in the Senate limits action supported by popular majorities (but opposed by powerful interests) to address increasingly pressing issues such as gun violence.
Adhering to the obsolete filibuster makes the situation even worse. As Fukuyama told me, it “adds to the stasis of the system”. We suffer from “the entrenchment of a kind of anti-majority rule that cannot be fixed”, he said, and the system does not respond to its “need to evolve”.
But to the extent that change is possible, why don’t Democrats try to tell voters who are desperate and hopeless about our system that it is any way they can move it?