Not all Democratic policy priorities are created equal. Some have the potential to go beyond improving society and making a positive difference in people’s lives — by laying the structural or ideological foundations for a lasting Democratic majority.
Gun control is one of those foundational, dual-benefit policies.
Usually such policies are easy to identify. The Employee Free Choice Act would have improved middle-class economic prospects while strengthening a specific bloc of Democratic support: organized labor. Democratic-led immigration reform will not only empower millions of people and lift the economy, but it will also help strengthen support among the key — and growing — Democratic demographic of Latinos.
Much has been made by people like Greg Sargent and others of a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that “the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that will increasingly comprise the core of the Democratic Party’s support as demographic shifts continue — is made up of nonwhites, young Americans, and white, college educated voters, particularly women. These latter groups all support a ban” on assault weapons.
But gun control isn’t just important because it’s desired by these groups — it may actually be necessary to preserving Democratic support among these groups in the long run. And the reason has to do with a subtle impact on values.
Many commentators commit the fallacy of assuming that various demographic blocs are, if not monolithic in their beliefs, then at least stable in their beliefs over time. But demographic blocs often shift beliefs and allegiances. For example, the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition included working class white males quite prominently. But eventually, Republicans figured out how to drive wedges between many white males and the Democratic Party — largely by focusing on issues that played on values like individualistic independence where Republicans had an edge.
Guns appeal very strongly to the “value” of individualistic independence, and they famously made up one of the most powerful wedges for Republicans. Or maybe that “value” should be characterized as an illusion:
After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force.
The more guns are allowed to flourish, the more the illusion of false security in individualism is likely to take root in our society. And the risk of that illusion taking root extends to many of the demographic groups that are currently hailed as the ascendant building blocks of a lasting Democratic majority. The larger role guns play in society, and the more that “value” takes hold, the less any group will prize the Democratic values of community and interdependence.
So yes, gun control is a worthy cause. It will make our malls, movie theaters, schools, places of worship, and communities safer. It is supported by many demographic groups that have been key to electing Democrats, and Democratic officeholders are duty-bound to pursue the priorities of their constituents.
But there’s a very real dual benefit to this policy. Dialing back our gun fetish keeps us from retreating into a fantasy of individual power. It keeps the path to power in the group arena, and that gives everyone a stake in working together with at least someone. Fostering those community-oriented values will help keep these and other demographics supporting Democratic policies that come out of community values (e.g. Social Security, infrastructure investment) for years to come.
A version of this piece was originally published at Daily Kos.