Discovering the American Majority with the NRA and Conservative Politicians

I have a piece going up later today over at CNN.com on the NRA convention, but there's something I raise there that I want to elaborate on. If you look at the list of Republican politicians who spoke to the assembled firearm enthusiasts, it wasn't exactly the A-team. Last year Mitt Romney showed up, but this year they had failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum, failed presidential candidate Rick Perry, universally disliked freshman senator Ted Cruz, currently unpopular Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and former half-term governor and current punch line Sarah Palin. Every one of them would like to be president one day, but the only one with even the ghost of a chance is Jindal.

And what do they have in common? Some are has-beens, some have reached the pinnacle of their careers even if they don't know it yet, but what distinguishes them isn't just that they're very, very conservative. It's that—like the NRA itself—they're obviously convinced that they represent the majority of the American public, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

When you're faced with apparent public disapproval of your position on something specific or even your broad ideological approach, there are a couple of ways you can address it. The first is to say that the public may not agree with me, but they happen to be wrong. That, after all, is why we have certain protections written into the Constitution, so they are immune to the vagaries of popular sentiment. If we took a vote every time a new question about free speech came up, we would no longer have free speech. I'm sure gun advocates believe that even if most Americans wanted to outlaw private gun ownership, that would still be wrong, which is why it's a good thing the right to bear arms is in the Constitution. The corollary is that Americans just don't understand the issue well enough yet, but once they hear a full explanation, most will come over to your side.

The second approach you can take is to say that although it appears that you're in the minority, that's only because the public will hasn't been properly understood. For instance, maybe the polls aren't measuring opinion correctly. This was what many conservatives believed during the 2012 campaign, claiming that the polls were methodologically flawed and Romney was headed for triumph on election day. Or you can say that the truth isn't to be found in numbers or systematic analyses, but in measures closer to the ground, like what you feel in your gut, or what people come up and tell you when you're traveling around.

It's natural for people to weigh that kind of "evidence" more heavily when they think about where they stand in relation to the public. We all think we're right, and if you're engaged in the democratic process in any way, you have to believe that the people are, if not always wise, at least capable of arriving at the right decision given the opportunity. And if you're a politician or a high-profile advocate, people are constantly coming up to you and telling you you're doing a great job. Think about it this way: Let's say you were in an airport and you saw coming toward you Elizabeth Warren and Linsdey Graham, and you were feeling bold, but you only had time to talk to one of them. Would you go tell Warren you think she's a terrific advocate for the middle class and you hope she runs for president one day, or would you go up to Graham and tell him what you thought about him? Most of us are basically polite, and don't like initiating confrontations with strangers if it isn't necessary. So the politician thinks, "Everybody says I'm great!" because most of the spontaneous expressions of opinion they hear are positive ones.

If you're someone like Wayne LaPierre, this is even more exaggerated, because you spend your time going from gun convention to gun show to gun club to gun barbeque, meeting a seemingly endless number of gun people. So how do you understand the fact that you just defeated a bill that every poll showed was supported by around 90 percent of Americans? You convince yourself that that 90 percent stuff is all just a bunch of baloney. First, your enemies aren't part of America at all. "The media and political elites," Wayne Lapierre said in his speech to the convention, "don't get it because they don't get America." And if you want to know what Americans think, don't bother with polls: "Everywhere I go," LaPierre said, "I've learned that the NRA is truly at the heart of America's heartland. That we are in the middle of the river of America's mainstream. That what we want is exactly what most Americans want."

The truth is that the NRA is a lot of things, but "the middle of the river of America's mainstream" isn't one of them. But from where he sits, that sounds perfectly accurate, in the same way that from where Sarah Palin sits, her brand of conservatism seems to have the support of most Americans, and if she ran for president she'd win. After all, everybody she talks to tells her she's great.

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