The only message politicians will understand

You want change on abortion? You want gun laws rewritten? Start with the ballot.

June 2, 2022 4:22 am

Photo by Getty Images.

Folks, we have trained our politicians so well.

It’s not just the ones in Montana, it’s something we’ve done across the country.

If there’s one thing the recent shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have taught us, it’s that righteous public outrage is no match for disciplined political silence. As the public demands Congress and politicians to address the scourge of gun violence by adopting a reasonable modicum of gun laws, it’s a foregone conclusion that there’s little chance of anything meaningful happening.

How is it that two-thirds of Americans support laws that would reform gun control, and there’s almost a 100 percent chance that nothing will happen?

Don’t blame the filibuster. And, as much as the National Rifle Association is morally bankrupt, it would be nothing without the funding and support of gun money and the members who flock to worship at the altar of firearms while several hundred miles away, families gather at a different church to bury their grade-schoolers.

It’s not the fault of an arcane Senate rule. It’s not the fault of a self-serving organization which has preached a false narrative of a society growing more and more dangerous, and given mostly scared White men a club to which they can belong.

Sadly, the fault lies with us.

We have chosen and received the government we’re willing to tolerate. Literally.

We have accepted these politicians who blame doors, not guns. We have sanctioned the logic that epidemic of massacres at the hands of people who have acquired military-grade weapons is simply a problem of mental illness — as if it’s as common as depression or anxiety. But that does a disservice to those struggling with mental illness, and if it was the truth, our leaders would have poured millions into the solution long ago.

It’s ironic that the threat of taking someone’s gun away, a certain type of overheated paranoia, may be the thing that causes more mental health funding.

We have chosen to believe that we have demanded change for a long time, but that’s not entirely true. We have been outraged. We have sent more “thoughts and prayers” than a packed monastery to victims’ families. But we haven’t really demanded change.

Because when it comes right down to it: We have demanded change right up until the point we’ve gotten our ballots, and then we’ve collectively decided that some other state’s politicians are the real problem. Our representatives and Congressional delegation are some of the good ones. Or we’ve bargained away our outrage, figuring that the same old incumbent is probably “the lesser of the two evils,” and so we reward the politicians who continue shrug their shoulders and perpetuate the myth that the Second Amendment is both absolute and well settled.

Yeah, kind of like abortion and Roe vs. Wade, huh?

We have collectively failed to hold politicians to account in the only way they truly understand our will and wishes: We have not forced a change on Election Day.

Last week, the Daily Montanan sent a simple list of questions to our Congressional delegation about what they were willing to do about gun control. Only Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, responded. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale, both Republicans, didn’t even respond to the email with the questions, let alone answer them.

I could rage at their callousness. I could drone on about how politicians are elected to be responsive and accountable, and that includes answering questions from the press, which has to hold up its part of the bargain by asking tough questions and being more than a conduit for self-congratulating press releases.

Yet Daines and Rosendale aren’t quite that clueless or callous. They’re cunning.

They’re making — and continue to make — a calculated bet.

They have made a wager that’s actually quite easy to understand — not just about gun violence — but about any other topic in which they may be the minority. They’ll remain quiet, or only release carefully curated and edited statements that are big on sentiment and short on details.

In other words, every time they open their mouths to say what they really think or believe, especially during those moments that aren’t carefully scripted and planned, there’s an unacceptable risk that those words may obligate them to take accountability, or even worse, action.

And in this current political climate, action is punished at the ballot box, while inaction seems generally benign. And that’s where we come in.

No politician has seemed to pay the price for not answering questions from the media or the public. And people seem to remember what certain politicians did, not what they didn’t do. And these same politicians are trusting that you’ll fear the other guy from the other political party more than you’ll love them.

It’s politics calculated at its most precise. And the reason they refuse to act, let alone answer, is because we’re sent the message that we will tolerate, support, even re-elect them because the real problem is some other city, county or state’s politicians, not ours.

Don’t let politicians confuse you: Gun control isn’t that hard. When we banned assault rifles, mass shootings declined.

The political answer is equally simple and straightforward: Politicians only understand the language of the ballot box. The real question is: Do we?

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.