What climate activists need to learn from the NRA and the gun-control wars
Supporters of climate-change legislation have much to learn from an organization that is often rated as the most powerful lobby in Washington: the National Rifle Association.
The gun lobby is not invincible, but it has won a disproportionate share of its battles. The NRA and its allies have not relied on data collection and scrupulously reasoned arguments to carry the day. To the contrary, the gun lobby has focused on building and energizing its small membership base, working to influence the outcome of critical elections, and employing bare-knuckled tactics.
The NRA’s membership is not that large — probably a little over 3 million. Its views, even in today’s more pro-gun environment, are largely outside the mainstream of American thought. Indeed, many of its own members likely disagree with the organization’s policies. But when the NRA speaks, the politicians in Washington listen, salute, and fall in line.
Ask any veteran of a gun-control battle, and they will tell you it’s not politics as taught in the classroom; it’s the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.
As climate activists regroup for another assault on the carbon camp, here are some key points to keep in mind:
Remember: all politics is politics. It is not a debate competition. Elected officials must be persuaded by all means legal and ethical to vote for your position. Some members of Congress may be won over by the urgency of your cause, but most will only be persuaded by the urgency with which their constituents speak out on this issue. Sadly, loud voices at town halls count for more than all the scientists in the world.
Fight on all fronts. Congress is just one battlefield in a much larger theater of political conflict involving 536 elections, including the election of the president. If you are not fighting for the election of your friends and the defeat of your enemies at the ballot box, the battle for Congress is already lost. Your involvement in a campaign may or may not make a critical difference in the outcome of an election, but if your presence is not felt there, it will not be felt much in Congress either.
Fight behind enemy lines. Support on controversial issues tends to divide along party lines, but don’t let that stop you from recruiting and supporting a candidate on your issue who happens to be a member of the other party. In fact, getting involved in primary fights on the other side of the political aisle may be the single most effective thing you can do to change the political dynamic. Members of Congress will do almost anything — including voting for climate-change legislation — to avoid a serious primary challenge. There’s a reason why the NRA’s political action committee, which generally backs Republican candidates, also devotes a lot of resources to unseating Democrats in primaries. Win or lose, it gets the attention of their opponents.
Win new allies. Wars are seldom won without strong allies. The same goes for politics. If your allied base is not strong enough, convert some of your erstwhile opponents into allies. The gun lobby suffered two of its worst defeats in the 1990s when gun-control groups successfully recruited the support of major national law-enforcement groups. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to work harder at making allies out of businesses interests that previously may have been skeptical of climate change, like the insurance industry.
Redraw the battle lines. At the present time, the issue of climate change is largely seen as an intergenerational issue affecting future generations, but as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, as they have this year, the issue may — and should — become more pressing to those focused on the “the here and now.” Supporters of climate-change legislation need to do a better job of defining what’s at stake in the near term, including extreme temperatures, drought, flooding, and rising food prices.
Work on your rallying cry. It’s a shame that most issues in politics, even complex issues like climate change, are often reduced to 25 words or less, but that’s the way it is. Messages serve to frame the debate and can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Both sides of the gun debate have used messaging to their benefit, but over the years the gun lobby has done a better job of it than gun-control proponents. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to go back to the message drawing board.
Change the rules of engagement. When the rules don’t suit it, the gun lobby is not shy about changing them. Because it has a bigger political war chest than its gun-control opponents, it has taken every opportunity to loosen campaign finance restrictions. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to reevaluate the laws and procedures, including the super-majority requirement in the Senate, that have made it more difficult to pass legislation and override entrenched business interests. There’s a reason why the House has passed climate-change legislation and the Senate has not; the House is more (small “d”) democratic than the Senate. Unless the rules are changed, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to get climate-change legislation approved in the Senate.
Don’t fear to be feared. Progressive groups, including many supporters of climate-change legislation, love to be loved. The gun lobby doesn’t care if you don’t like it, so long as you fear it. The NRA, the most powerful lobby in Washington, is one of the most reviled. Many members of Congress, even pro-gun members, privately bristle at the tactics of the NRA, but that doesn’t stop them from voting in lockstep with the gun lobby.
Don’t get mad, get even. Bruised, scarred, and brushed aside, no one could blame supporters of climate-change legislation for being angry at a political process that has stymied action on an issue of such great import. When I worked on gun issues, I ran into a lot of activists, particularly the victims and survivors of gun violence, who were incensed at Congress for its failure to adopt sensible gun laws. The key was to channel that anger and frustration into constructive action, and we did that with the passage of the Brady Law and the federal assault-weapons ban.
The 111th Congress has failed to act on climate change. This is no time to quit. The stakes are too high. And success is the best revenge.