By David M. Greenwald
The left was headed to their typical off-year slumber. Unlike the right, the left’s political engagement has been episodic—out of office, they have often been vigilant and engaged. But in 1994, 2010 and 2014, while controlling the White House, the left has been routed in midterm elections.
My theory is that while the right seems to always show up, the left has to have been pissed off in order to vote. The left came out to vote in response to Bush and Trump, but fell asleep when their own party controlled the White House and seemed to anesthetize the base. The one exception—1998 when Clinton was being threatened with impeachment, Democrats actually gained ground in the midterm.
It was a landscape—lingering pandemic, soaring inflation, possible recession, soaring gas prices, unsettled situation in the Ukraine, crime rates that have increased, and a president that is at best blah and possibly worse.
It was a recipe for a route in November—and that still may happen. But in recent weeks, the core has been shaken a bit. First was the leak of a potential Supreme Court decision overturning Roe and now the massacre in Texas.
Suddenly there is a lot more energy on the left—but so far that hasn’t translated to changes in polling. It may not. The left is going to have be strategic, smart and crafty on the issue of abortion. Pretty much since Roe v. Wade they have been out-organized and out-maneuvered by the right in the long game.
The right has out-organized the left at the grassroots level, which has enabled them to move the electorate—the working class white electorate—to the Republican column, slowly over the course of the last 50 years.
At the same time, they have been ruthless and relentless about remaking the court. They have capitalized on every left hiccup and seized every opportunity.
The left has an opening now with the potential that Roe will be overturned. It’s not just abortion. It is LGBTQ+ rights that are being threatened. The right has turned the transgender community into a target.
The left could push back with a message that could appeal to middle class whites threatened by the rightward push on social policy—even things like birth control and sex education could be threatened.
The polling so far seems to show no discernible change—although the real measure will be on whether or not it activates the occasional left voters more than it activates the occasional right voters.
It has the potential to do so, but the left has been asleep so long, they have been out-organized at the grassroots level, which used to be their strength. They may not be able to turn it around in one cycle. They definitely can’t turn it around with a scattershot approach aiming at the top down rather than the bottom up.
Meanwhile we have another mass shooting, another school massacre. People are outraged. The pressure is on the right and NRA to do something. But if Columbine and Sandy Hook didn’t change anything, why would Uvalde?
The Clinton administration in the 1990s went for very modest, commonsense reforms like background checks and assault weapons limitations, and they got eaten alive in 1994 because, while the polls say that the majority of people support commonsense gun control, pollsters still apparently don’t understand the basic problem of salience—the gun fanatics vote on the issue of guns, the average voters vote on 20 other issues and may not decide who they are going to vote for based on their gun position.
If anything the efforts at commonsense gun reform that started in 1990s, have moved the gun issue far to the right—not because of the average person, but because of where the activists are.
The Brennan Center re-ran their 2014 exposé on how the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment. Many have argued that gun control presents a Second Amendment problem. But the Brennan Center shows by tracing history, “The Founders never intended to create an unregulated individual right to a gun.”
They report, “Many are startled to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun until 2008, when District of Columbia v. Heller struck down the capital’s law effectively banning handguns in the home. In fact, every other time the court had ruled previously, it had ruled otherwise.”
They argue: “The National Rifle Association’s long crusade to bring its interpretation of the Constitution into the mainstream teaches a different lesson: Constitutional change is the product of public argument and political maneuvering. The pro-gun movement may have started with scholarship, but then it targeted public opinion and shifted the organs of government. By the time the issue reached the Supreme Court, the desired new doctrine fell like a ripe apple from a tree.”
Politico this weekend reported, “The National Rifle Association’s position on gun laws has become more conservative due to pressure from grassroots gun rights organizations, Republican former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said Sunday.”
They added, “Asked by host Chuck Todd of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ to respond to a 1999 clip of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre arguing in favor of mandatory background checks for purchases at gun shows, McCrory argued that the NRA was a more moderate organization under pressure to go further to the right of its executives’ positions.”
Finally, several outlets have argued this week, this is really no longer about the NRA.
Frank Smith of Politico reports, “Ultimately, the NRA is a profoundly weaker and more divided organization than it once was. But its legacy, even if it fails to survive, will be the culture and ideology of gun rights it helped cultivate, and that is a potent thing for many conservative voters and the Republican politicians who chase them.”
The NRA’s fight has become mainstreamed into the Republican party and every threat to gun rights will bring out the Trump wing of the party.
Bottom line—tonight there will be a candlelight vigil in Davis, led by Congressman Mike Thompson who has a key gun control measure. Last week political leaders in Yolo County gathered for abortion and reproduction rights.
The left now feels threatened and is starting to wake up.
But history has shown it will take more than that to turn the tide. The left has not been willing to play the long game on these issues and rebuild their coalitions. Until they do, they will be out-organized and out-mobilized by the right every single time.