If you want to understand the degree to which America’s Democrats and Republicans now live in almost completely separate political worlds, their reactions to last week’s shooting in San Bernardino, California, are an excellent place to start.
In the wake of the massacre, which left 14 dead and 21 injured, Democrats focused on guns. Hillary Clinton tweeted: “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now.”
The New York Times published its first front-page editorial in 95 years with the headline “The Gun Epidemic”.
For most Republicans the important thing was Islam (the attackers, according to police, were an American Muslim and his Pakistani-born wife). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spoke of a nation “under siege” that is facing “the next world war”. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush warned of “Islamic terrorism that wants to destroy our way of life”.
Democrats highlighted the fact that San Bernardino took place only five days after an attack on a women’s health centre in Colorado. December 2, the day of the San Bernardino attack, was the 336th day of 2015, but the massacre, by one widely-quoted reckoning, was America’s 355th mass shooting of the year.
The couple who carried out the massacre each carried assault rifles and an automatic pistol. They left 1,800 rounds of ammunition in their car. The fact that all this took place in California, which boasts some of the country’s strictest gun laws, and that it still appears to have been completely legal is the sort of thing that gives Democrats fits.
For Republicans the problem was not what had been purchased but who was doing the buying. It was, they said, a failure of counter-terrorist intelligence work.
Florida senator Marco Rubio complained that Democrats were focusing on the wrong things. “Forty-eight hours after this is over they’re still out there talking about gun control measures,” he said.
Trump, still the leader in pretty much every poll of Republican voters, said the victims would still be alive if only they too had been carrying guns.
The White House was left arguing, in the words of the website realclearpolitics.com, that regular shooting deaths are not the “new normal” and that linking terrorism to Syrian refugees, as many Republicans have sought to do, is both factually incorrect and logically nonsensical.
All of which serves as a reminder, as though we needed one, of the degree to which America’s Democrats and Republicans often seem to inhabit utterly different countries. With a presidential campaign in full swing, this points toward a more important trend: the shrinking of America’s political middle ground. The conventional wisdom used to be that around 35 per cent of the
country was firmly dedicated to each of the main political parties.
The national argument over guns and terrorism offers the clearest evidence yet that both parties have mostly abandoned the belief that a large pool of persuadable voters still exists. Even allowing for the fact that primaries are always geared toward the most partisan of voters it is increasingly clear that next year’s campaign — on both sides — is going to be mainly about turning out each party’s base.
In a country where the political class already often talks past one another that is hardly a good sign but, at least for 2016, it is probably too late to change it. (Gulf News)
*Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches Political Science at the University of Vermont.