How the NRA changed politics

In exploring the reasons behind the NRA’s influence, you find a lesson on the evolution of American politics, and why the group’s clout may be waning.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
The National Rifle Association set up a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, in 2018.

The National Rifle Association is facing its share of problems. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement have rocked the advocacy group, and in this week’s cover story Simon Montlake profiles the man determined to take it on. America’s gun owners deserve better, the insurgent says.

But the subtext for Simon’s story – the very reason we wrote the story in the first place, really – is the remarkable influence that the NRA has wielded in American politics during the past 25 years. In exploring the reasons behind that influence, you find a lesson on the evolution of American politics – and why it is only now that the NRA’s clout might be waning.

The fact is, the NRA was perfectly calibrated to take advantage of shifts in how Americans vote. Swing voters have largely disappeared. American voters are now reliably sorted into left-of-center and right-of-center camps on issues across the board. This means the true power in American politics is in motivating your partisans to turn out, not spending time wooing declining numbers of people in the mushy middle.

And no one adopted this approach earlier or more aggressively than the NRA. The group’s ability to motivate and mobilize voters – often by fanning existential fears about the future of the Second Amendment – made it one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. It also increasingly became sewn into the political playbook, first on the right, and now increasingly on the left. Litmus tests to prove partisan purity rose in importance, and those who fell afoul were increasingly subject to robust primary challenges.

But as James Madison predicted in his Federalist Papers, factions give rise to counterfactions with their own purity tests. Others are learning the lessons of the NRA. Especially in the wake of several school shootings, there is some evidence that gun control groups are gaining traction by using the same method – seeking to generate an equally passionate fervor among their supporters.

Madison’s hope that relatively small groups of elected representatives would cool this fervor by making decisions on behalf of voters has largely vanished. It started disappearing almost the moment the republic was founded, with the Electoral College becoming a rubber stamp for the state vote counts, for instance. The very idea seems antiquated today. But the flip side is that strong factions of reliably partisan voters can show what power they hold. And in that reality, the NRA playbook is a powerful tool.

*          *          *

I also wanted to thank all the readers who wrote in about the recent Monitor Weekly redesign. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but among the praise was the consistent comment that we didn’t get Points of Progress quite right. So this week we’re unveiling a new Points of Progress design that blends readers’ suggestions with the Weekly’s new style. You’ll see that the large world map is back, but crisper and more readable than ever. Please take a look and let us know what you think.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.