There’s a joke going around the internet these days called, “The answer to every question.” Over a picture of Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, is superimposed the following text:
Q: How many NRA spokesmen do you need to change a light bulb?
A: More guns.
A picture of Grover Norquist, originator of the no-tax pledge signed by almost every Republican in Congress, could be the subject of a similar riff:
Q: How many congressional Republicans do you need to change a light bulb?
A: Lower taxes.
LaPierre and Norquist, two peas in a pod. Their answer to every question is simple: Either more guns or lower taxes.
LaPierre, armed with a treasure chest of money, spends unlimited funds to defeat any member of Congress who exhibits the temerity to challenge NRA orthodoxy on more guns for more people. Similarly, Norquist uses his vast power to back primary challenges to any member besmirched by a whiff of a tax hike.
Both men are very good at what they do. LaPierre and the NRA have managed in recent years to turn back every attempt to curb the number of guns or the types of ammunition available and to frustrate attempts to register guns and put in place effective background checks. Norquist’s success in putting so many Republicans in his back pocket frustrates any governmental attempt to solve the nation’s deficit problem through a balanced combination of tax increases and spending cuts. The result of Norquist’s influence on Washington is governmental gridlock.
Norquist and LaPierre have much in common. Norquist sits on the NRA’s board, a perch from which he echoes LaPierre’s claim that the answer to gun violence is more guns. “We ought to take a look at what has worked,” Norquist says. “You want to drop the number of murders, you want to drop the number of rapes, you want to drop the number of armed robberies, have more people with concealed carry permits in your state. The data out there is clear. It’s been out there for decades now.”
Norquist and LaPierre typify a political axiom: Those who are passionate about an issue, so passionate that it becomes the only issue that matters to them, wield far more influence than those on the opposite side for whom the issue is one of many.
Guns are the most obvious illustration of this axiom. Those who hide behind Second Amendment rights to oppose any sensible curb on guns vote as a bloc; those who favor gun control usually support it as one of many issues. They are more likely than their opponents to scatter their votes.
The same dynamic works on taxes, especially in Republican primaries where any incumbent, no matter how conservative, is often challenged if he or she wanders off Norquist’s reservation.
Norquist and LaPierre are adept at taking advantage of a contemporary phenomena known as the “Big Sort,” under which like-minded people tend to live near one another. This means that congressional districts are more likely than ever to be dominated by one political party.
The absurd gerrymandering of congressional districts, always a problem but taken to new heights when Republicans seized control of many state legislatures in 2010, further exacerbates single-party control.
One-party dominance in political entities means that incumbents are not threatened in a general election; rather, they only way to unseat someone is in a contested primary. Since primaries tend to bring out the true believers, candidates are pushed to the extreme on all issues, most notably on gun control and taxes.
Though this tendency afflicts both parties, it is more common to Republicans. Rural areas, where Republicans predominate, are more homogenous than urban ones, home to most Democrats. Republican congressional candidates in states such as Utah, Idaho, and Oklahoma commonly win general elections by whopping margins, which means they have little incentive to move to the middle.
It is, of course, precisely those districts where the culture of guns exists and where people tend exhibit hostility to government, often manifested as opposition to taxes.
Wayne LaPierre and Grover Norquist know how to take advantage of these modern political trends. It gives them vast power to influence American politics in pursuit of their single-minded goals: No gun control for the former, no tax hikes for the latter.
America will not begin to solve its problems until it is freed of the influence of LaPierre and Norquist.