Politicians are, by their very nature, cynical beings. A person who depends on the will of the masses to retain his or her position will always be (and with good reason) calculating. And it’s that very calculation that is responsible for politicians being everything people despise about them.
It is fair to say that the Founding Fathers anticipated this would be the case, and that is why the Constitution mandates that one of the houses of the legislative branch — to wit, the “upper chamber” — not be filled with politicians chosen directly by the people, but that senators be appointed by state legislatures.
Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the difference between the two chambers when he wrote Democracy in America. Tocqueville observed that the House had a “vulgar aspect” to it, and that its members were “obscure persons, whose name furnishes no image to one’s thought.” In the Senate, however, “one perceives hardly a single man there who does not recall the idea of a recent illustrious [deed].”
The reason for this, he wrote, is that the difference in how each chamber is filled causes the Senate, having gone through an extra step in choosing its representatives, to represent the “elevated thoughts that are current in the midst” of the majority and the “generous instincts that animate it,” while the House, being a direct election, represents “the small passions that often agitate” the majority, and “the vices that dishonor it.”
But since 1913 and the passage of the 17th Amendment, which made it so that senators were elected directly by the people, America has been deprived of this elevated upper chamber, and instead has to make do with two “vulgar” ones.
Politicians who need to win direct elections to stay in power then often have but one goal: They must be able to present themselves to their electorate as working on things their voters want accomplished. But the reality is that it is the presentation as such that matters more than the actual accomplishment. And if faced with a choice between the two, more often than not it will be the accomplishment that draws the short straw.
Nothing can illustrate this better than the way the Senate chose to “deal with” the aftermath of the Orlando terror attack. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, would like for you to believe that they are working hard to “keep guns out of the hands of terrorists.” But the reality is that all they are working hard on is making it look like they are working hard on it.
Democrats proposed a measure to use the “no-fly list” as an able determinant of who should be banned from purchasing a gun. The Republicans voted against this measure, arguing that a list which is compiled without any thought given to due process should not be used to abridge this, or any constitutional right. (It should be noted that the uber-liberal ACLU opposes the proposal for the same reason.) It was thus defeated on an almost perfect party line vote.
They then proposed a measure of their own. The Republican bill, which was sponsored by Texas Senator John Cornyn, would also use the “no-fly list” as a starting point. Where the Cornyn amendment differs is by what happens after that.
If someone on the list were to attempt to buy a gun, he or she would be denied the gun on the spot. The government would be notified, and would then have three days to provide probable cause to a judge showing the attempted buyer “has committed, conspired to commit, attempted to commit, or will commit an act of terrorism.” If they can do that, the person gets arrested. If not, he or she can buy the gun.
All but two Democrats voted against it.
Which to me is weird, because the Cornyn proposal definitely goes further toward keeping guns away from terrorists than doing nothing does. So why oppose it, especially after your proposal already failed?
Because neither side really wants to “do” anything as much as they want to stay in power. And if there is a process in place that helps keep weapons away from terrorists, the Democrats can’t keep telling their voters they need to keep supporting them so that they can fight against gun violence, and Republicans can’t tell their base they are fighting to keep their gun rights intact.
We just read about Korach, who was the ultimate populist. “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim — the entire community is holy,” he proclaimed. Why should Moshe Rabbeinu be at its head? But as On’s wife pointed out to him (Sanhedrin 109), it was only a ploy, manipulating the people’s passions in order to gain power for himself.
And while we all have our reasons for wanting certain policies to be advanced and certain laws to be passed, it is instructive to remember what it is that motivates most people who choose politics as their profession. They just want to keep their jobs.