There was a time not too long ago when Republicans knew that when an election got tight, they could trot out "God, guns, and gays" to drive a cultural wedge between Democrats and the electorate, since the GOP was the party that, like most Americans, loved the first two and hated the third. It's more complicated now, both within the parties and between them, but there's no doubt that 2016 will feature plenty of culture war sniping. For better or worse, Democrats and Republicans really do represent two different Americas.
I thought of that this weekend reading this article in the Washington Post about the personal relationships the potential Republican candidates have with guns. That they are all opposed to any limits on gun ownership is a given, but more interesting is the role guns play in their own lives. With a couple of important exceptions, the potential Republican candidates fall into one of two categories when it comes to guns: those who grew up with them, and those who embraced them once their political ambitions matured.
Some of them have been building their collections since childhood. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) is up to 12 now, including an AR-15 assault weapon that he has talked about using if law and order ever breaks down in his neighborhood. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is so well-armed, he has a gun for jogging.
Others were city kids who didn't own guns until later in life. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) bought a .357 magnum revolver in 2010, the year he ran for Senate, saying the gun was for protection… [Ted Cruz] grew up in the suburbs of Houston and got his first exposure to guns at summer camp. But, as an adult, Cruz bought two guns: a .357 magnum revolver and a Beretta Silver Pigeon II shotgun, according to a spokeswoman… In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also didn't grow up hunting. But he got his first guns in his mid-30s: a shotgun he won in a raffle and a rifle he got as a gift, said a spokeswoman for his political committee. Now he hunts deer, pheasants and ducks with his motorcycle-riding buddies… Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal purchased a snubnosed, laser-sighted Smith & Wesson .38 revolver after Hurricane Katrina. He still keeps it for home defense, although his home is now the heavily guarded Governor's Mansion.
Far be it from me to question the sincerity of any politician's enthusiasm for firearms, but buying a gun does seem an awful lot like the kind of thing a Republican politician does just because that's what Republican politicians are expected to do. But there's gun rights, and then there's contemporary gun culture. The two are not at all the same, and it's the latter some Republicans seem so eager to embrace.
There's an important context here, which is that gun ownership has been steadily declining for about four decades now. Yet even as fewer and fewer people own guns, gun sales are increasing, which means that the people who do own them are buying more and more. Ask a certain kind of gun owner how many he owns, and he'll say, "More than I need, but not as many as I want."
And it's that culture that many Republican politicians feel the need to make their own. You could see it as part of a general conservative nostalgia for a time that's passed, when the law was a distant force and a man might have to protect his homestead from rustlers and thieves. The trouble is that for many gun owners today, guns are less tools with everyday uses than fetish objects. It's the very fact that they serve no practical purpose in most gun owners' lives that makes them so emotionally powerful. When a guy like Lindsey Graham says that needs his AR-15 in case "there was a law-and-order breakdown in my community," he's living in a land of fantasy, where a middle-aged guy who wears a suit every day is actually an agent of heroic violence, the very embodiment of physical capability and potency.
But the bare fact is this: there are places in America where gun ownership is common and expected, and places where it isn't. And more Americans live in the latter. So when Republicans proclaim themselves representatives of the first type of place – in both ideas and habits – they put themselves at an immediate disadvantage.
But not all of them do. Jeb Bush, for instance, has the appropriate Republican policy stance when it comes to guns (along with an A-plus rating from the NRA), but he does not himself own a gun (the only other potential candidate who doesn't is Chris Christie). Which makes perfect sense if we think about gun ownership being so much a function of geography. Unlike some of his opponents – the emphatically Texan Rick Perry, the extremely Midwestern Scott Walker – Jeb isn't really from any particular place. As a member of the Bush clan, he grew up travelling a kind of elevated platform of wealth and power that traverses the country. Connecticut, Texas, Florida – wherever it was, it was essentially the same. That isn't really his fault; when your grandfather is a senator and your father becomes president, and you go to Andover and summer at Kennebunkport, that's the world you're from. And it isn't a world where people view guns as a vital cultural totem. If Jeb walked out on a stage holding a rifle over his head, he'd look even dumber than Mitch McConnell did.
We don't think about Hillary Clinton representing any particular place either. She grew up in Illinois but left it behind, spent almost two decades in Arkansas then left for Washington, and now lives in New York, but doesn't embody any of those places (or even try to). That's fine with liberals, whose demands for cultural affinity are served well enough by someone who moved around a lot. The president she's trying to succeed most definitely represented a particular place, though it was less Chicago specifically than American cities in general, the dense and diverse places liberals either live or want to live.
And that's where all the Republicans have a problem. They continue to romanticize rural and small-town life, but the number of Americans who actually live in those places is small and getting smaller. Even if plenty of suburban Republicans still imagine themselves out on the range, that isn't the American reality. Planting your flag there may seem necessary to win the Republican nomination, but it won't do you much good the day after.