Existential Dread

04.18.14

Money and Guns: How We Escape Our Existential Dread

Michael Bloomberg’s anti-NRA campaign reveals why liberals love money in politics as much as everybody else: They’re terrified.

Have you heard the depressing, outrageous news?

The dreaded Koch brothers are dumping $50 million into an election-year campaign to target their political enemies and—this is a direct quote—“make them afraid of us.”

Isn’t it revolting? When will the influence of money in politics ever subside?

Wait, what’s that you say? I have my names wrong? That’s not the Koch brothers with the $50 million plan? That quote belongs to someone else?

It’s actually Michael Bloomberg spending that sum, to strike fear into the hearts of NRA members and beat them at their own game?

It’s Shannon Watts, the activist profiled with Bloomberg for the New York Times report on the effort, who tells Reuters, “I think the NRA should be very afraid”?

Oh. That changes things, doesn’t it?

For a lot of people, actually no, it doesn’t. Progressives in the grip of one of their signature moral crusades routinely embrace money in politics for me, but not for thee.

Barack Obama set the tone in 2008, when he became the first presidential candidate in history to reject public funds—the better to combat money in politics, of course. In a video he taped to explain the move, Obama vowed that only fire could fight fire. “It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system.”

Then, in 2013, Obama sent a wave of horror through his own party by launching Organizing for Action, a political pressure group that refused to share money with the Democratic National Committee.

The group helped set the pattern Bloomberg is using to lend his intimidating campaign some moral heft. Out to raise “unlimited amounts of cash,” Organizing for Action would hammer on “curbing gun violence,” among other “top issues” for the president, all while remaining technically “nonpartisan.”

“That means the group might find itself opposing not just Republicans but also Democrats,” McClatchy dutifully observed, “including the more conservative members of the party on gun control.”

Confronted with enduring fears among leading Democrats that his $50 million initiative will throw control of the Senate to Republicans, Bloomberg’s response embraced the president’s logic: claim to transcend partisan politics, and you’ll legitimize the fear you sow among your opponents. “You can tell me all you want that the Republicans would be worse in the Senate than the Democrats,” Bloomberg told the New York Times. “Maybe they would. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Although any hot-button issue can lay bare the way fear fuels money in politics, the gun issue does it best. Guns reach to the heart of how we Americans view ourselves as a people. Ask us what we think about guns, and we’ll tell you what we think about our society—and our country, and the human condition.

Ask us what we think about guns, and we’ll tell you what we think about our society—and our country, and the human condition.

Bloomberg’s new gun-control group is already showing how. Everytown for Gun Safety, as it’s known, is the culmination of a political agenda that began in the wake of the Newtown shootings. There, America’s contemporary fear of guns came into sharp relief.

Not that long ago, the gun issue was predominantly viewed through the lens of law and order. In the 1970s, when crime in New York City became a symbol of national malaise, urban neoconservatives who felt “mugged by reality” joined forces with Americans who feared a real-life mugging, or worse. Criminals and gangs were thought to be motivated by a debased sense of honor or a simple desire to seize property. 

The first-wave neocons may have been comfortable with secularism, but for most Americans who associated gun violence with increasing crime and lawlessness, the problem cohered with a Biblical view of disorder. The wages of sins like pride and greed, after all, were death.

In the current anti-gun climate that Bloomberg seeks to lead, that religious view has given way to something much different. Over the past several decades, but especially after Newtown, our fear of guns has shifted away from a fear of sinful people to a fear of sick ones. Blaming Marilyn Manson for school massacres is out. Blaming mental disorders and untreated illness is in.

Ironically, the old religious view made room for a not particularly pious variety of macho “justice”-seeking. Today’s more secular view, by contrast, tends to privilege women’s attitudes, especially mothers. Bloomberg's crew has developed their political strategy accordingly. “The key to whether they can be effective,” the mayor and his advisers told the Times, “will be turning out female voters, the sought-after swing bloc that has been pivotal in recent elections.” Their goal is to mobilize women who see guns as the most terrifying way cruel fate sends death to shockingly ruin our lives.

That’s not a bad-faith approach. It squares with our growing sense that God doesn’t care if your child accidentally shoots off her own face, or if your boy is gunned down in class by a soulless, disturbed loner. It squares with our existential horror over watching “a mother’s worst nightmare” played out over and over again on cable TV.

It’s not so much that we privilege maternal love, although we probably still do. It’s that more and more of us have stopped believing that providence oversees our destiny. In the absence of faith, the fear of fate flows in. Instead of purpose, however painful or sorrow-stricken, we see randomness—blind, uncaring, brutal accident—irrupt into our fragile lives.

Under the strain of that feeling, many single men through the ages have adopted a devil-may-care attitude. Fewer mothers have. In the most emotionally accurate moment in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Jennifer Connelly’s Naameh turns with heartbroken fury on her husband, insisting he is badly mistaken that God wants him to kill off their own grandchildren.

Today, however, Americans often don’t scream at God or the faithful when children are slain with guns. We scream at how senseless the violence seems, how meaninglessness the tragedy. And for that reason, we scream at government. We scream about the laws. There is nowhere else to turn.

Given our current stage of social development, that may make all the sense in the world. But it stands as a gruesome reminder of why politics is becoming the place we go to answer the question, “Who should I fear today?”

From that perspective, it’s no surprise progressives throw vast sums into politics, even though it often dismays them to do so.

However hypocritical, they’re willing to do what it takes to prove Thomas Hobbes right. Hundreds of years ago, the author of Leviathan warned that the only just, sane, and safe world is one where we don’t fear each other because the government overawes us all.

As so many of our other venerable social dreams die around us, Hobbes’s utopia may be well the last to go.