It is counterintuitive to assume stigma will be a more reliable bulwark against right-wing populist political outcomes today in the more gerrymandered, ideologically-sorted country that elected Donald Trump.
Indeed, most times that a left-of-center commentator declares that the press “shouldn’t normalize” the latest White House transgression, I think to myself: This stuff is all happening, and the GOP Congress shows no indication of stopping it, so critics had better start focusing on the substance of why it is wrong and the alternatives to it, rather than persisting in the fantasy that it can be stopped if only cultural elites marshal enough solidarity to deem it beyond the pale.
What’s more, stigma campaigns rooted in hashtag activism are unusually vulnerable to overreach and backlash: Moderate participants may direct their opprobrium at the NRA itself, which does take various positions that are out of line with public opinion, but it is almost inevitable that any sustained campaign will include voices that cast all gun owners as pariahs and wield stigma in off-putting ways that risk alienating a politically disadvantageous percentage of the electorate.
There is a simultaneous risk that anti-NRA stigma will be fleeting. It already seems to be displacing #MeToo in public consciousness. And what was the movement just prior to that? Hashtag activism has usefully surfaced a lot of important issues in the few years it has been around, but protest efforts that spread virally on social media face the reality that just one thing can trend at once. The NRA will still be focused on its agenda if ICE starts deporting young people who registered under DACA or if Donald Trump fires Robert Mueller.
Will progressives still be focused on the NRA?
Finally, succeed or fail, efforts rooted in stigma further polarize the country, which has costs, regardless of whether they are brought about by the right or the left.
As David French wrote after CNN’s townhall on guns:
Unlike the stupid hysterics over net neutrality, tax policy, or regulatory reform, the gun debate really is — at its heart — about life and death. It’s about different ways of life, different ways of perceiving your role in a nation and a community. Given these immense stakes, extra degrees of charity and empathy are necessary in public discussion and debate. At the moment, what we have instead are extra degrees of anger and contempt. The stakes are high.
Emotions are high.
Why bother to learn anything new when you know the other side is evil? It takes more than a constitution or a government to hold a nation together. The ties that bind us as Americans are strong and durable, but the great challenges that formed them are receding into the past.
For all those reasons, my inclination, if gun control were my aim, would be to identify specific, achievable reforms that a majority of voters already support, and to focus on pressuring politicians to adopt that agenda (or else be ousted by a coalition that makes the ballot its tool of change). My posture toward gun owners would be the respectful engagement David Brooks recommends. I’d expect to pass, at minimum, a voluntary no-gun registry and gun-violence restraining orders (two measures I support personally, despite my conflicted feelings on the broader issue).