The power of the NRA– it’s not the money

So, I wanted to write a post about how everybody blaming the NRA’s financial contributions to politicians for our lack of sensible gun policy (such posts and memes are filling up my Facebook feed) is getting the causality exactly backwards.  But, since I’m busy/lazy, that post was never going to happen.  But, now it will because Vox’s Jeff Stein talks to some smart political scientists (Mattt Grossman and Lee Drutman) so I get to just copy and paste those key points:

Research shows money doesn’t factor in the highest-priority congressional votes

Money does have a real influence on policymaking in Washington. But it doesn’t tend to change how politicians vote on big, high-profile issues that garner national attention, according to the political scientists.

“There’s a whole lot of evidence on the relationship of money in politics, and the least persuasive evidence is that you can buy vote on final passage of legislation on issues of high public importance,” Grossmann says. [emphases mine]

Some people (including Donald Trump) like to imagine that the campaign finance system creates a quid pro quo in which businesses are transactionally rewarded for their gifts. Instead, the money has two key but subtler effects: 1) It systematically elevates the priorities of the rich by forcing politicians to spend more time with them than they do with the poor; and 2) it helps businesses grease the legislative wheel.

The second one tends to apply primarily to issues well out of the public eye. Drutman likened campaign donations to bringing a nice bottle of wine to an exclusive dinner party: The wine won’t itself get you through the door, but it may help you strike up a conversation you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Now, Drutman acknowledges there’s a meaningful argument that Republicans and their voters have come to be pro-gun in part because of the influence of the NRA’s money. But the donations themselves are clearly not the reason Republican lawmakers fear opposing the NRA — the much bigger threat the gun rights group poses is its ability to mobilize and excite huge numbers of voters, Drutman says.

“The way you rise up in Republican politics is by supporting gun rights issues, and you do that because there a lot of Republican voters in the coalition who care very deeply about gun rights,” Drutman says.

Of course, none of this means that it wouldn’t be good to try to root money out of politics. It just means that doing so wouldn’t lead to the sweeping gun control so many liberals hope is only being held back by our campaign finance system.

Exactly.  The NRA gives money to Republican politicians to help get them re-elected because they are reliable supporters of a pro-gun agenda because a successful Republican politician damn well better be.  The NRA matters– a lot– but if you take away their money, they would still be hugely influential because what they represent is passionate voters.  And, in politics as life, intensity matters.  A lot.  (And a reason to run one of my favorite cartoons ever that I conclude my Interest Groups lecture with):

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