The President was in Colorado yesterday to call attention to the gun issue at a time when political support for meaningful reforms seems to be ebbing (as an aside, it’s inexplicable to me why the NRA released their school safety report at the very moment they were close getting to winning, all it did was remind reasonable people how ridiculous they are). The President has signaled that he would take a weak bill over no bill, never a good sign. Unfortunately, this evolution of the debate isn’t surprising. What we’re seeing is a classic case of intensity of support for something, as distinct from overall levels of support for it, play out. (In the case of guns it’s why I think we need to fundamentally change gun politics in this country as a predicate for serious policy change. )
Consider this example on guns. In a recent Mayors Against Illegal Guns poll (pdf) 71 percent of NRA members said they thought that people on the terrorist watch list should be ineligible to buy firearms. This was hailed as evidence of how room for compromise was at hand. But that’s exactly the wrong way to read a number like that. The real story is that 29 precent of NRA member didn’t think people on those lists should be banned from buying firearms. Inside the organization what group do you think is more active and holds more leverage? At town hall meetings other political events, which group of respondents do you think is more likely to show up and talk to elected officials?
This isn’t just about guns. There are clear parallels in education where polls constantly show high levels of support for various issues but those preferences are translated into public policy much less frequently. Why? Again, highly motivated factions can trump the will of larger but broader swaths of less motivated people. It’s an old story in American politics and, depending where you are on a particular issue, a hazard or benefit of a democracy such as ours.
But understanding support versus enthusiasm is key to understanding why, for instance, the positions of many teachers reflected in opinion surveys diverge from the positions of the teachers unions. It’s likewise key to understanding both organizational behavior in membership organizations and also why many local elections play out the way they do.
As a basic rule in American politics when it comes down to broad and diffuse support versus enthusiastic and motivated opposition, bet on the latter almost every time.