The Mad Dash To Status Quo

The recent shootings in Santa Barbara have, rightly, grabbed national headlines. The father of one of the victims is, appropriately, expressing rage and outrage at both the event and the set of laws that he sees allowing events like this.

And as a result, no law will change.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza points out that: “The simple fact is that tragedies involving guns do not move the political needle — whether you are talking about public opinion or the actions of politicians —  in any meaningful way.”

Jamie Fuller, also of The Post, writes “… mass shootings have done little to alter Congress’ desire to change our country’s federal gun policies. On the state level, shootings have been more likely to inspire a step away from gun regulation lately. It seems unlikely that Congress will renew attempts to pass new background check legislation or new gun restrictions for mentally ill persons — especially this close to an election that could change leadership in the Senate.”

The challenges aren’t of will or outrage. Everyone is outraged, and many have the individual will to act on that outrage. The challenges are of issue definition and cooperative action, which is tied to political incentives.

First there’s the question of what the shooting was “about.” Most observers saw the news and said, “I told you so! There are too many guns/if everyone were armed someone would have stopped him sooner; we have ignored misogyny too long; this is what happens when mental health issues are ignored; video games/movies/TV shows/music are too violent; god hates whomever I hate; etc.”

No one saw the news and thought, “I wonder what led to this? I wonder what role, if any, the knife control lobby played? (Recall he stabbed his first victims). I wonder what the most prudent course of action would be, or if this was a tragic and mercifully rare event that ought not lead to a rush of policymaking.”

One of my favorite sayings about politics is:

Congress does two things well: Nothing, and Over-React

Then there is the challenge of cooperative action, which is this case means legislation (state or federal). Those who are responsible for that action had their own “I told you so!” moment, and are responsible to constituents who, on an issue like gun violence, probably share the same “I told you so!” view. These constituents tend to reward elected officials who share their view, and punish those who do not.

It is critical to bear in mind that there is no national constituency. No one represents “America” (only the President can lay claim to that, because the Constitution prevents his re-election, he has no political incentive to listen to that constituency). There is no Congressman from Twitter, Facebook likes, or internet memes. Instead, legislators represent a few thousand people in a state legislative district, or a few hundred thousand in a Congressional district. This group tends to be relatively politically homogeneous; they know what they believe, and everyone they know agrees with them, woe unto the candidate who suggests otherwise.

And when a group of individuals rooted both ideologically and politically in their positions comes together, no one gives and nothing gets done. Those who do give in are punished at the polls, even if it means laws are passed that makes things better. Those who hold firm, even if it means the good (or even middling) becomes the enemy of the perfect, are rewarded both psychologically (they feel good about themselves for holding their ground) and politically.

As a result, there will be a lot of activity in the wake of this most recent shooting to make the news (or the many to fail to hit the headlines). But there will be no action.

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