There has been much discussion of the recent school shooting in Connecticut. We were all horrified by the events there, and the story has captured the nation’s attention, at least for the moment. But in order for meaningful action to take place, the public’s attention span and its willingness to communicate its views to government officials need to change.
The vast majority of elected officials are primarily concerned with their re-election. Thus they take actions that will assist them in achieving this goal, or at least not hinder re-election. On major issues, this usually means going along with the views of a majority of their constituents, and on lesser issues, this means doing whatever the most powerful interest groups want. Is gun control a major issue? Not usually, but perhaps it will become a major issue because of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Our short attention span
In recent years, Americans have had a very short attention span. Witness the 2008 economic collapse, and all the anger that surfaced shortly thereafter directed at government and at large banks. A casual reading of recent business news, however, reveals that most of the largest banks that brought the nation to its economic knees a few years ago are now larger than they were then.
Whatever happened to “move your money”? Apparently not very many people moved their money, and perhaps the issue of the solvency of banks, not to mention the broader issue of competition in an allegedly capitalist economy, became boring for the media and public. Monopolies? Nearly every semester, I find myself asking my students whether they ever learned about something called the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in school, at which point most look at me as though I’m speaking another language.
The next time banks that are “too big to fail” are on the brink of failure and want your tax dollars, remember that consumers have choices about where to put their money. And millions have chosen to stay with biggest banks, for reasons that are unclear to me.
Another example: oil drilling
What about drilling for oil one mile deep in the ocean? I naively thought that the Gulf oil spill was going to be a major turning point in our nation’s energy policy. Not only was this not the case, but oil and gas companies have since decided that we need to drill for even more oil and natural gas in more places. I guess all those sleekly produced ads run by the energy industry have paid off. Now, in many circles, it’s difficult to even raise a question about the wisdom of a pipeline running from Canada to Texas.
Very few of our elected officials will do anything more than is necessary today to ensure their political survival. In this regard, this makes elected officials just like the rest of us. How many of you reading this piece will do the right thing at work today if doing the right thing doesn’t help, or might even hurt, your standing with your employer? Aren’t most of us mainly interested in keeping whatever job we currently have? Some people in every organization go above and beyond the call of duty, and we all know that. But most of us don’t, including elected officials, and that just makes them human, like the rest of us.
Why the lack of sustained governmental action on major problems? Perhaps most of us just feel powerless, which is understandable. Or maybe there’s too much information coming at us. Politicians certainly deserve their fair share of blame. As do the media, particularly cable news and talk radio. It is increasingly difficult for government to take serious action on issues in a society in which lunacy of all types has become mainstream.
Citizens must share the blame
But at some point we have to stop placing blame elsewhere and look in the mirror. I would put 50 percent or more of the lack of governmental action on a major issue like gun control on the citizens. Not those who believe that the government is secretly plotting a massive gun-confiscation project. That’s like blaming the clouds for producing rain and snow. Rather, the majority of citizens, including large numbers of hunters and gun owners, who would support stronger gun-control measures but don’t let their views be known. They don’t vote on the basis of this issue. And our elected officials know that. If the majority of citizens fail to speak out about guns and violence now, they never will.
Powerful interests like energy companies, large banks, and the firearms industry/lobby will all accept a flurry of outrage after a major incident, because they know that the initial outrage nearly always fades away. And when it does, they can then get back to work on getting whatever they want from government, and the public can get back to whatever it gets back to. Until the next big economic, environmental, or gun-related tragedy, when we’ll see the cycle repeat itself all over again.
We need to act, in small ways or large
The problem of violence in our culture, and of a government that is terrified of regulating guns, ultimately lies with us. So we need to do something — contact a member of Congress, state legislator, or even a city council or school board member (or all of the above); talk to your friends and neighbors; contact a legitimate media outlet; attend a town meeting or protest; anything.
(We should also stop paying attention to media personalities who make the nonsensical argument that the answer to the epidemic of violence is arming more people. Nancy Lanza collected firearms for her protection, a fact that is conveniently forgotten or ignored by those calling for more arms in response to this tragedy.)
In a democracy, citizens need to make their views on important issues known — because if they don’t, they might as well not even have views at all.
Neil Kraus, of St. Paul, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.
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