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3 winners and 2 losers from the Democrats’ gun control sit-in

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Democratic House sit-in that just wrapped up on Thursday afternoon was chaotic, energizing, and extraordinary. Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of sit-ins during the civil rights movement, kicked it off with a passionate speech. Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped by to bring Dunkin’ Donuts and take a selfie. Early in the morning, as Republicans tried to hold a vote on funding to combat the Zika virus, the chamber erupted in shouting matches.

As the dust clears and the Democrats, too, head home to their districts for the Fourth of July holiday, it might seem like the sit-in achieved nothing — not even a failed vote on mild gun control measures. But the protest was never about policy. It was about politics. And, like every political event, there are winners and there are losers.

Winner: Gun control advocates

Woman holding "background checks for all" sign
Gun control advocates protest in Illinois on June 17.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The sit-in didn’t result in any new gun control. Even if it had, the measures under consideration would have been, at best, a tiny step toward addressing gun violence. But in the long run, advocates for gun control are still the winners here. The sit-in, and the Senate filibuster that preceded it, showed that gun control is an issue that will stir the passions of liberals — and that the Democratic leadership is increasingly willing to go along.

That matters. Gun control supporters talk a lot about the power of the National Rifle Association’s spending on congressional campaigns. But arguably more important than the fundraising gap is the enthusiasm gap: The NRA’s membership is small compared to the overall population, but they really care about unrestricted gun ownership. They call their legislators, they write letters to the editor, and they vote.

Gun control advocates, on the other hand, have a less engaged group of Americans on their side. Even the Democratic Party has been a big tent, where gun control supporters share space with rural and centrist legislators who support gun rights.

But now, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes, gun control is becoming a much more defining issue for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid voiced his support for the sit-in. If gun control becomes an issue that energizes its supporters as much as its opponents, and that becomes a leading priority for the party, that bodes well for its long-term chances. (Civil liberties advocates, on the other hand, were less lucky.)

Winner: John Lewis, Nancy Pelosi, and the other Congress members who participated in the sit-in

Representatives outside the Capitol
Supporters greet John Lewis, James Clyburn, Maxine Waters, and Charlie Rangel — safe-seat Democrats who participated in the protest.
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Pity the members of the minority party in Congress: Not only are they part of one of the most widely disliked institutions in America, they’re essentially powerless to do anything about it. For Democratic members of the House from deep blue districts, their last chance to deliver on their constituents’ liberal hopes and dreams was six years ago.

But for 26 hours on Wednesday and Thursday, the Democrats who participated in the sit-in got to be heroes to progressives and gun control advocates, and to prove that Republicans aren’t the only ones willing to hold up the traditional functioning of government to accomplish their legislative priorities.

The sit-in was a stunt — or, more charitably, a symbol. But it was a very effective one. It rallied the Democratic base on social media. It allows members of Congress to say that they’re doing something, even if those tactics don’t translate into any actual policy change. And the legislators who led the sit-in are mostly in safe districts, meaning they tried their best to force Republicans into a politically difficult vote without any actual downside for themselves.

Winner: Periscope and other live broadcasting apps

Screenshot of Periscope
A screenshot from Rep. Scott Peters’s Periscope broadcast, an essential source of information on the sit-in.
Scott Peters

The hottest media trend of the past six months or so has been the ability for journalists and others to broadcast live from their phone, capabilities now offered by Periscope as well as within Twitter and Facebook. The question that hasn’t been fully answered — even as many media outlets, including Vox, have experimented with the form — is why you’d want to.

Now we have an answer. When Republicans called a recess and turned off the cameras Wednesday afternoon, they offered a huge boon to live broadcasting apps. Periscope was the best way to watch the sit-in, something even C-SPAN acknowledged when they began using it to show their audience what was going on in the House chamber.

Increasingly, politicians can bypass traditional intermediaries like the media and go straight to their constituents. That’s not entirely good news for democracy. But it’s great news for the companies that offer them that ability, who now have a vivid example to call on the next time an investor wonders why anyone would really want to broadcast live themselves or to watch someone else do it.

"I am paying for this microphone!" Ronald Reagan famously yelled when the moderator of a 1980 primary debate tried to cut off his sound during an event his campaign had paid for. In 2016, he wouldn’t have needed to: He could have just pulled out his phone and turned on Periscope.

Loser: Donald Trump

Trump at podium
For once, Trump wasn’t the center of attention.
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

On Wednesday, just before House Democrats announced they’d hold the floor until a gun control vote took place, Donald Trump gave a speech that seemed to signal he might finally be running the presidential campaign Republicans have been waiting for. He found a strong argument against Hillary Clinton and a good line in favor of his candidacy. It managed to seem something like a speech you’d give while running a presidential campaign while still sounding like Trump.

In other words, it could have been some good news for Trump after a month of very, very bad, disastrous, campaign news. But House Democrats managed to, um, trump that to dominate the news cycle for the rest of the day. Trump wasn’t the center of attention — he’d ceded the electrifying political news of the day to his ideological opponents. Sad!

Loser: Institutional norms and functional governance

Even if you support the goals of the House Democrats and understand the frustration with congressional inaction that led them to take the House floor, it should be a little troubling that the way to force Trump from the headlines was to take a page from his playbook and throw out the norms of American politics.

Of course, Republicans have been here before — they even staged a sit-in of their own in 2008, and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacted much as Ryan did — and have gone further. A protest on the floor of the House of Representatives is not in the same league as using the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip in a partisan battle. It would be absurd to argue that the Democrats’ sit-in has somehow poisoned the well after Republicans spent months refusing to even hold hearings on the nomination of a Supreme Court justice.

But politics is changing in ways that mean scenes like Wednesday night’s are likely to become more common, not less. A Pew Research Center report released Wednesday paints a stark picture of why. The parties are more polarized than ever, and their members are increasingly distrustful of each other. Even when voters say they want compromise, what they really want is for their party to get most of its own priorities accomplished.

In other words, the parties have little common ground, and voters might not really want them to find it anyway. In an atmosphere where meaningful policy change, which requires compromise, is increasingly unlikely, it’s understandable that politicians will turn to symbolic, emotional, attention-getting tactics — sit-ins and filibusters — to signal that they’re at least doing something. Extraordinary tactics make for an exciting news cycle, but they’re not usually, in the long run, conducive to good governance.

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