Why Politicians Have Less Power Than They Think

The Industrial Revolution arguably created the modern world. Not only did it give us the machines and technology that makes our civilization possible, it also formed our way of thinking about politics. It brought about a deep change in the power balance between citizens and politicians, thanks largely to the invention of the printing press.

Once newspapers began to be printed, it was no longer possible for politicians to exercise absolute power. Until about 1600, governments essentially operated in a performative way – taking decisions in their own interests, and then telling the populace what they had done. The rise of what Habermas described as the “public sphere”, a place where well-informed citizens could discuss the actions of their own government, changed that.

Once information was available outside of government channels, citizens were able to hold their government to account. In response, politicians were forced to listen to the views of their constituents for perhaps the first time. Indeed, it’s arguably this shift that led to the gradual replacement of monarchy with democracy in Europe between 1600 and 1800.

The public sphere stripped politicians of power in a way that is still not well understood. Since at least 1800, politicians have been more followers than leaders: they use the law to codify trends that have already come to fruition, rather than using executive power to change societies.

Promoting Distortion

That said, in order for the public sphere to operate correctly, several things need to be in place. The first is capitalism, which stripped governments of total financial control, and permitted alternative power channels to be realized. The second is that discourse within the public sphere needs to be rational – that is, based on evidence, and not blindly partisan.

Politicians do not like the public sphere, which ultimately gets in the way of the untrammelled exercise of power. It can be annoying to have the populace question your motives and actions. For this reason, the political establishment has a vested interest in making sure that discourse in the public sphere is as distorted as possible.

If politicians can polarize debates, they can be assured of the support of a portion of the populace, because the citizens are no longer using reason to form their political opinions. Not only does this limit dissent, it also masks the fact that politicians have less power than they would like us to believe.

An Example: Guns

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the gun debate in the US today. Take a look at the most recent flashpoint in this ongoing discourse – the Las Vegas shootings – and you will see what I mean.

The Left have jumped on bump stocks as the sole cause of the massacre, and are rushing to ban them. The Right, on the other hand, argue that limiting access to bump stocks would not have stopped the massacre. For the record, I agree with them in this matter.

The more important point here, though, is that it is precisely this politicization – on both sides – that prevents us from having a reasonable debate about firearms. Every mass shooting is used by politicians to further entrench “their” people into an irrational stance on the issue. Not only does this rob citizens of their ability to think clearly about these issues, it also hides the impotence of politicians when it comes to doing anything about them.

How It Actually Works

In reality, politicians are powerless to do anything about the number, type, and usage of guns in America. They will never admit this, of course, but even a cursory look at American history shows it to be true.

To actual driving forces behind gun legislation in the US are not political, but rely more on culture and the market. Guns are deeply rooted in the American psyche, and many guns have become iconic due to their role in history, but the discourse we have built up around guns is not static. In the 1970s, the 1911 pistol was one of the most popular handguns, because at that time there were a lot of Western movies. Today, we are more likely to watch films about contemporary soldiers who  carry AR-15s, and accordingly sales of these weapons have spiked.

My point, here, is that popular culture drives sales of weapons far more than political decisions. The government knowingly denies this, because popular culture is ultimately outside their control.

As is the market, which is the second driver of our gun culture. To state the obvious, one of the reasons that people have more guns now than in the past is because guns are so cheap. Ultimately, the firearms industry is far more powerful than politicians in deciding the types of weapon people carry, and as long as gun manufacturers keep producing handguns for beginners this is unlikely to change.

Given the enormous power of culture and capitalism, against which even the Presidency is feeble, what generally happens is this: the government passes laws which merely codify things that would have happened anyway, from the emancipation of women to the legalization of weed. In addition, they continually seek to polarize each debate, in order to stymie the ability of their population to question political narratives.

To end on on a positive: what is to be done? Bluntly, we must challenge distortion of the facts wherever they are found, on the right or the left. It is only through doing this that we can restore the correct operation and true power of the public sphere, in the debates about firearms and elsewhere. Ultimately, we will not receive any credit for this, because politicians will claim responsibility for the advances we make, but we will know the truth.

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  • Wild_Willie

    A very good piece. President Trump stated how news is fake in a 90’s TV interview. If the media was not complicit in the ‘game’ the success of politicizing guns, abortion, healthcare, tax cuts, etc. would be difficult to sell to citizens. Social Media has changed the MSM power structure as has Trump. Now if we can only police the fake stories on the internet.

  • Retired military

    Mr Bocetta
    Welcome to Wizbang

  • Scalia

    Welcome to Wizbang. I hope to hear a lot more from you.

    With respect to your post, you write:

    The more important point here, though, is that it is precisely this politicization – on both sides – that prevents us from having a reasonable debate about firearms.

    I’m interested to know what you think is a reasonable debate about firearms. Those of us on the Right favor reasonable restrictions such as background checks, prohibiting the sale of firearms to felons, straw purchases, enhanced regulation with respect to minors, firearms safety training, etc. We’ve been willing to come to the table to discuss the issue.

    The Left, on the other hand, has been completely unreasonable because liberals see guns as the problem. All their efforts are designed to ban firearms. Given that, it’s not possible to have a reasonable discussion with them.

    • yetanotherjohn

      I actually see this as a feature, not a bug. The former NPR CEO who lived for a year in the wilds of flyover country discovered the defensive use of firearms while doing so. He realized that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were protected by the defensive use of their weapons everyday in this country. The liberal media bubble that he came from never reported about this because they were either ignorant like he was or knew that it would undermine their argument against guns. Since normal people can both instinctively and practically recognize that defensive use of firearms is a reasonable part of discussing firearm regulations, the fact that the left tries to keep it out of the discourse pushes people away from the left and undercuts the lefts other arguments against guns by its absence.
      This sort of liberal echo chamber that ignores reality is a big part of why the democratic party is retreating to smaller enclaves in this country and the subsequent losses at the state and national level.

      • Scalia

        Yes. I cited him in my most recent thread.

      • Living as I do in the belly of the great blue beast, I frequently find myself shaking my head at neighbors and co-workers who believe all of their fellow citizens must think as they do…

    • jim_m

      Not just to ban guns, but universal confiscation. Of course any ban will end up like Venezuela, where guns were taken from the public and given to pro regime thugs for the purpose of suppressing dissent through violence, intimidation and murder.

  • yetanotherjohn

    One quibble, you might want to look at the reformation on moving from top down to bottoms up government. We went from there is only one choice to think about religion to what your prince believes between two choices is what you will believe to each individual gets their choice in less than 100 years. The changes were driven by the political realities of being elected and remaining in power as Holy Roman Emperor.
    Likewise the idea of individuals questioning authority and having individual worth derive from the reformation. Given we are coming up on the 500 year anniversary of the reformation this week, it seems only fair to give it its due.

  • I think you ascribe an inevitability to historical outcomes and trends which is popular amongst some, but not well supported by an in depth reading of the history. You also fail to address the Greek democracies and the early Roman Republic that long predated the industrial revolution.

    Oh, and welcome aboard.

  • Jwb10001

    Politicians have less power than they think and more than they deserve.

  • jim_m

    In the 1970s, the 1911 pistol was one of the most popular handguns, because at that time there were a lot of Western movies.

    Let me caution you to stop displaying your ignorance about guns. The M9111 was never used in the old west and you never see one in a western.

    The M1911 remains one of the most popular pistols because they are accurate, reliable and easy to shoot. These were not done passing fad.

    Second, “contemporary soldiers ” do not carry AR15’s and never have. AR15s are popular because they are cheap, easy to use and versatile.

    It’s hard to discern where you stand on gun control but I suspect given your ignorance about guns that you favor it.

    • jim_m

      Correction. Having now viewed some of the links in your article it is exceedingly clear that you are grossly ignorant about guns and have misrepresented guns, gun owners and the gun industry.

      It is obvious that you favor gun control but like all those who favor government confiscation of guns, are unwilling to say so openly because you know that your position is unrealistic and unacceptable to millions of Americans.

      It is interesting that you find dangerous and offensive the idea that there would be guns that people deem suitable for a beginner to learn how to use a gun safely. Your link purporting to prove that guns are cheap does nothing of the sort.

      Given the rather low standard of your opening offering I will withhold welcome and hope that you might be able to do better, by providing in the future more accurate, truthful, and correctly supported opinions rather than ideological screeds filed with ignorance, distortion, and lies.