Just finished reading a piece by my favorite New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof about another type of inequality we should be ashamed of. There are approximately 350 million guns in the United States, more than one for every man, woman and child, though gun ownership is highly concentrated in a minority of the population. This is a number and rate far higher than other developed country. As a result, the US has a gun murder rate 25 times higher than our peers. Since 1970, more Americans have died of gun violence, including murders, suicides and accidents (1.4 million) than in all US wars combined (1.3 million). Yes, “Guns don’t kill people” (alone), but people with guns kill people (including themselves) at shockingly high rates. This is another example of “American exceptionalism” we shouldn’t be proud of.
The embedded article contrasts the heroism of a 15 year old Parkland, FL high school student, who shielded his classmates and took 5 bullets in the process, with the timidity of adults, especially President Trump and the Florida state legislature, on gun control issues. Though the vast majority of Americans (including gun owners) support such common sense measures as universal background checks, a 21 year old age minimum to buy firearms, bans on military assault weapons and large capacity magazines, these routinely fail to pass Congress and Republican state legislatures. Kristof concludes, “This will change only when politicians are more afraid of voters than the NRA.”
This is a failure of democracy, and it’s not unique. I highly recommend a new work by prominent political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America: What’s Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (2017, U. Chicago) Among their many interesting findings, they analyzed 1700 discrete policies before Congress in recent decades and found that public opinion had virtually no impact on any of them! Instead, wealthy individuals, corporations and vested interests have outsized, dominant influence over public policy. This is extremely un-democratic – the rule of the few over the many. The basic culprit is our old friend, economic inequality. “Democracy tends to flourish in times of relative economic equality but has withered when there are big gaps between rich and poor,” such as our own.
Democracy, defined as political equality and majority rule, is only possible in times of relative economic equality, such as the Early Republic, Jacksonian Era or the “Golden Age” of strong economic growth and shared prosperity, the 1940s – 1970s. Democracy and equality are mutually interdependent and causally linked. Page and Gilens call for a new, broad based social movement to increase democracy, equality and opportunity for all. Sounds good to me – where do I sign up? And will you join me?