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.
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.