Since the horrific killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, there has been an effort to undercut the teenage survivors powerful gun control message by suggesting they are either:
a. being used by gun control groups;
b. too traumatized to be reasonable;
c. simply don’t have the experience or background to speak credibly on such an important issue;
d. all of the above.
When I was a teacher, I taught middle school — a few years off from the Parkland students — and I can tell you even middle schoolers know their stuff and they are fierce when it comes to their friends and community.
Generally ad hominem attacks — attacks on the person, not the position they are taking — are the weakest and laziest way to try to win an argument. In this case it is a particularly disgusting attempt to undercut a vital message from a group of people who in an instant learned more about the devastating terror of semi-automatic rifles than the vast majority of us will ever know.
But a sizable majority of politicians who have the power to make real change to our gun laws have no appetite to take on the National Rifle Association, so they are desperate to find a way — any way — to avoid having to listen and respond to these kids, who despite having suffered an devastating trauma are principled, responsible, and 100 percent right on the issue.
And it’s not just the Parkland teenagers. Politicians, who love to talk about how “smart” the American people are, regularly ignore the clear wishes of their constituents. Whether it’s gun control, health care, taxes or many other issues, deep down most of our elected officials do not actually believe American voters have the background, analytical skills or raw intelligence to understand policy and have informed opinions. And even if they do, it’s often the will of their largest funders that define their agenda. Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, told Vox: “There’s not an actual human constituency for any aspect of the Republican Congressional agenda…instead it’s an inside game that is judged, win or lose, on the basis of which entrenched permanent interests gain advantage or disadvantage, and how that affects the endless fundraising process.”
Schmidt was talking about the health care debate last fall, when repeal of the Affordable Care Act came one vote short of passage despite polls showing two-thirds of the American people — or more in some surveys — opposed the effort. The fact that the issue was even brought to a vote showed disdain for the opinions and intelligence of voters in our country.
We saw it in the tax reform legislation last December, which was enacted despite being one of the most unpopular measures passed by Congress in decades, with some polls showing just 25 percent public support. Now that the slight of hand of one-time bonuses and wage increases has passed, we are seeing who really benefits from and paid for the tax cut. Only 13% of companies’ tax cut savings will go to workers (pay raises, bonuses and benefits). Forty-three percent will go to investors (stock buybacks and dividends) and 19% would go to mergers and acquisitions and 17% to capital investment. That’s according to Morgan Stanley.
And for decades, the public has been strongly in favor of tougher gun control laws, but the needle has actually swung in the opposite direction (a national assault weapons ban was allowed to expire and was never reinstated, concealed carry laws have expanded, and in one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump relaxed regulations designed to keep guns out of the hands of people with serious mental illness).
At The Fairness Project we work with voters across the country to head in the opposite direction. We believe voters do understand these policies, what they do, and how they will affect their lives. Instead of falling victim to paternalistic politicians beholden to their donors, eager to lord their “expertise” over their constituents, and who refuse to give voters what they want, we work with grassroots organizations to take the issue directly to the people through ballot initiatives.
So, for example, even through Congress has not voted to raise the minimum wage since George W. Bush was President, ballot initiatives we supported in six states in 2016 successfully raised the minimum wage for 8 million workers and created paid sick leave for 2 million more. Since January 2017, these measures have put nearly $3.5 billion in workers’ pockets.
Last November, we helped Maine become the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid through a ballot initiative after the governor there had vetoed it five times. Currently, we are working with state organizations on ballots to increase the minimum wage in Missouri, provide workers paid sick leave in Michigan, and expand Medicaid in Utah, Idaho, and other states.
In each case, these policies had no chance of being passed by the states’ elected politicians despite clear support from a majority of voters.
We can hope after this most recent bloody massacre that our elected officials will make real change to our gun laws that will reduce the violence. But it’s probably more likely that these efforts will largely fail, as they did after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, and so many others.
The lack of popular political action in Congress and state legislatures on these essential issues has taught us over and over that big money and power often overwhelm the smart, sensible views and desires of voters, even if it’s a vast majority of voters. But it has also taught us that in many states, we don’t have to put up with it because ultimately voters have real power to enact change through direct democracy is we decide to seize it.