Paul Waldman

Is the Single-Issue Gun Voter Another Myth?

Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.

Sounds like a true story, but is it?

Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.

Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.

From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.

The Trouble with Scoops

Flickr/Aaron Tang

It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, the Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?

I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they really don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what actually happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.

As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell.

But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points out, there have essentially been two phases in the conservative media's attention to this story. In phase 1, they ignored it. In phase 2, they write stories complaining that because of liberal bias, the media are ignoring it. What's missing, of course, actual coverage of the story itself, despite the fact that conservatives have all these media outlets that could be doing what they claim the mainstream media aren't. The Washington Times, for instance, ran one AP story about the start of the trial, followed by 7 separate pieces on how the media are ignoring the story. Did it send its own reporters there to cover it? Nah, why bother? They do, however, have an online poll in which you can answer this vital question: "Online outrage is forcing some media outlets to cover the Kermit Gosnell abortion trial. Will MSNBC be able to continue its blackout?"

There are essentially two kinds of media criticism you'll see if you pay attention to these things. The first is an analysis that has some specificity to it, and aims to address some genuine ongoing weakness of press coverage. The second is just about browbeating and getting people you don't like on the defensive. It's the difference between "Let's see if we can get a discussion started about this problem and make some progress toward fixing it," and "Here's our chance to get those bastards on their heels." The left does both. The right only does the latter.

I Want Your Tax

Flickr/soukup

Today is tax day, the yearly opportunity for millions of Americans to shake their fists at the government and declare their contempt for the ideas of mutual concern and collective responsibility. So on this most practical of days, it's good to remind ourselves of some realities. First, the taxes we pay are, by international standards, fairly modest. Second, despite what some would have you believe, the wealthy are not crushed by the burden of taxation. And third, though nobody particularly enjoys giving part of their income to the government, taxes are the price we pay for having an advanced, democratic society.

Rand Paul Is a Genius

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news.

When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government regulation of the economy, for instance, but doesn't want drug legalization like many actual libertarians), he distinguished himself mostly by displaying a remarkably superficial knowledge of policy and saying that restaurant owners ought to be able to refuse to serve black people if they want, a practice outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and yes, now he says he always supported it, but he didn't — you can read an explanation here).

But in the last couple of months, Rand Paul may have gotten more news coverage than any other Republican in America, always including mention of the fact that he's thinking of running for president in 2016. How did he do it?

Left Behind

Phyllis Schlafly (Flickr/Gage Skidmore). If you want to reach out to young people, she's obviously the person to talk to.

Social conservatives are getting awfully worried about this new push in the Republican party to modernize, sideline the knuckle-draggers who can't help but offer their opinions on the functioning of ladyparts, show minorities that they don't hate them, and find a way to appeal to young people. So how can they respond? The most obvious way is to do what they do after every Republican loss, which is to tell the party's leadership that a) we lost the last election because you didn't listen to us; and b) if you don't start paying us sufficient deference, we'll abandon the GOP. As everybody knows, it's a threat they never follow through on and never will, but the obviously feel like they have no choice but to make it. So all the usual religious right suspects—Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Lou Sheldon—who have been playing this game at least since the 1980s, sent a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus warning him not to abandon them. As tired as this ritual may be, this time the threat to the religious right is much more serious than in the past, and you can sense their fear.

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph

Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey (R-PA) and NRA favorite Joe Manchin (D-WV) got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh.

Jindal Agonistes

Flickr/dsb nola

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, whom everyone assumes will be running for president in 2016, has had a lot of ups and downs in his relatively short career. Hailed as a wunderkind, he was given a series of influential positions in Republican administrations both state and federal while still in his 20s, eventually winning a seat in the House and then the governorship. Then he had that disastrous State of the Union response in 2009, where he looked almost hilariously awkward and uncomfortable. He recovered from that, though, and things seemed to be going very well when he gave a speech telling Republicans they couldn't be the "stupid party." His bold truth-telling made reporters swoon.

But alas, things have turned. Jindal recently proposed a tax plan that would cut taxes on the wealthy and increase them on the poor and middle class, and was shocked to find that people in his state found it less than appealing. He withdrew the plan, but not before his approval rating plunged into the 30s, making him one of the least popular governors in the country, at least for the moment (Benjy Sarlin explains what happened). And liberals, quite naturally, are enjoying a little schadenfreude at his expense.

Why Are Lists So Irresistible?

Flickr/atibens

Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about.

That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,", Gabriel Arana's extraordinary story about the ex-gay movement and his own youthful experience with conversion therapy. The article was not only well-reported and beautifully written, but genuinely newsworthy; it included an interview with Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the prime movers in the propagation of conversion therapy, in which Spitzer essentially recanted his entire career and apologized. That was our top article of the year, and deservedly so. And what was the second most-read article of the year? "Ten Arguments Gun Advocates Make, and Why They're Wrong," a listicle I wrote on the day of the Newtown shooting. I don't know exactly how long Gabe took to report and write his piece, but I imagine it was weeks. I splurted out that listicle in about an hour and a half.

So what's the lesson here? Lists are magic.

A Government That Can't Govern

Everything's going according to plan... (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Over the weekend, our friend Jonathan Bernstein wrote an interesting post discussing the point, not uncommon on the left but nonetheless true, that the problem with our politics today isn't "polarization" or "Washington" but the Republican party. His argument is basically that the GOP is caught in a series of overlapping vicious cycles that not only make governing impossible for everyone, but become extraordinarily difficult to break out of. As the base grows more extreme, it demands more ideological purity from primary candidates, leading to more ideological officeholders for whom obstruction of governance is an end in itself, marginalizing moderates and leaving no one with clout in the party to argue for a more sensible course, and in each subsequent election those demanding more and more purity become the loudest voices, and on and on. John Hunstman would probably tell you that he would have had a better chance of beating Barack Obama than Mitt Romney (who spent so much time pandering to the right) did, but nobody in the GOP cares what John Huntsman thinks.

There's one point Bernstein makes that shows just how serious this situation is: "Perhaps the biggest cause is the perverse incentives created by the conservative marketplace. Simply put, a large portion of the party, including the GOP-aligned partisan press and even many politicians, profit from having Democrats in office. Typically, democracies 'work' in part because political parties have strong incentives to hold office, which causes them once they win to try hard to enact public policy that keeps people satisfied with their government. That appears to be undermined for today's Republicans."

Martin Luther King and Today's Gun Advocates

Photo from the Library of Congress/Dick DeMarsico

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 45 years ago yesterday, and one of the interesting little sidelights to the debate over guns that you might not be aware of is that gun advocates claim King as one of their own. You see, King had armed guards protect his family, and at one point applied for a permit in Alabama to carry a concealed weapon himself. He was turned down, since in the Jim Crow days the state of Alabama wasn't about to let black men carry guns.

You can find references to these facts on all kinds of pro-gun web sites, as nonsensical as it may seem. Gun advocates want to claim King as part of their cause, but also want to completely repudiate everything he believed about the power of non-violence, which is kind of like Exxon saying John Muir would have favored drilling for oil in Yosemite because he sometimes rode in cars. The reason Martin Luther King sought armed protection was there were significant numbers of people who wanted to kill him, and eventually one of them succeeded. If you're a target for assassination, you should go ahead and buy a gun. But most of us aren't.

Sunday Shows Continue Long Tradition of Suckage

Oo, fascinating!

The Sunday political talk shows—your "Meet the Press," your "This Week," your "Face the Nation"—embody just about everything that's wrong with American politics, with Washington, D.C, and with the media. Every Sunday, you can flip between them and watch one party hack or another mindlessly deliver talking points, then watch the host try fruitlessly to trap said hack in some piece of hypocritical position-switching, then watch a bunch of "party strategists" bicker through the delivery of more talking points. I can understand why people who aren't interested in politics would find them unbearable, but even I can't stand them, and I'm someone who listens to C-SPAN radio in the car. (If you're interested in the depths of my disgust, you can read more here).

But there's no doubt they play an important role in Washington's political life, through the twin powers of agenda-setting and status conferral. The topics discussed on the Sunday shows are considered important topics, and the people who appear are considered important people. Back when George W. Bush was president, I worked at Media Matters for America, and during that time we started counting the guests on the Sunday shows to see what kind of ideological, gender, and racial diversity there was on these most prestigious of talk shows. When we released our first report on it—showing, among other things, that Republicans dramatically outnumbered Democrats, and conservatives outnumbered liberals—the producers of the shows responded by saying, "Well, that's because the Republicans are in power, so they're the newsmakers. If Democrats take control, then we'll be interviewing them more often."

So everything changed once Obama got elected, right? Nope.

We're All Buzzfeed Now

Not the NRCC web site.

A year or two ago, people would heap scorn on the Huffington Post, since although it employs excellent journalists who do valuable reporting, it also practices a brutal click-driven kind of management, in which celebrity news and grabby headlines are used to pull readers in, leaving some vaguely ashamed they read it in spite of themselves. HuffPo may not have invented the sideboob slideshow, but they brought it to such a high level that they eventually created an entire sideboob section on their web site, which is, not surprisingly, the top result you get on Google when you search the term. The section was created as a joke, but also kind of not.

Yet these days, you don't hear many of those complaints about HuffPo anymore. Why? One word: Buzzfeed. One might not have thought that another web site could find gold in the combination of guilty pleasure clickbait and actual journalism that HuffPo pioneered, but Buzzfeed did. Today, if someone is lamenting our short attention spans and the endless search for traffic, Buzzfeed is the site they'll mention. And how did they do it? Lists. Magical, wonderful lists. And Corgis. And Ryan Gosling. And lists about corgis and Ryan Gosling. Sideboob pics are for amateurs; if you want to grab the clicks, try "The 14 Most Insane Wedding Dresses of All Time," or "37 Professional Photoshoppers Who Should Be Fired Immediately," or "26 Things You Never Want to See Under a Microscope." Just try to resist clicking, I dare you.

So is there a way for politicians to get some of this action? The National Republican Congressional Committee, a name virtually synonymous with hip young people retweeting things with extra exclamation points, is betting that there is, according to the National Journal:

Obama Pleads for Empathy on Guns

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves.

The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides to cultivate some empathy. Here's an excerpt:

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