This week New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, sought to dissolve the National Rifle Association. She took this action ostensibly to pursue a claim of financial mismanagement. But the real reasons are obvious: the NRA is the preeminent defender of the Second Amendment, and the Left—and New York leftists in particular—really hate guns. In her earlier role as New York’s public advocate, James sought to strong-arm banks into dropping their business with gun manufacturers following the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
While the motive is obvious from the remedy being sought, the underlying allegations have some merit. The NRA has been serving the interests of its executives more than its members. Oliver North tried unsuccessfully to set the organization on the road to financial reform last year. The guys in charge seem to have forgotten who they work for.
As an NRA member, I was disappointed, though hardly shocked, by these developments. This is a common problem in the nonprofit world, where greed, self-dealing, and lax accounting are masked by the language of serving the public interest. We’ve seen it with everything ranging from Wounded Warrior Foundation’s lavish spending on what were essentially vacations for the leadership to the Kid Wish Foundation, which only spent three cents of every dollar on fulfilling the wishes of dying children.
A Dangerous Precedent
While the government is certainly within its rights to look into fraud, the government’s investigative powers are not supposed to be used for low partisan purposes. In addition to the obvious potential for abuse, there was, until recently, a concern for “mutually assured destruction.” If New York is dissolving the NRA, why couldn’t Alabama shut down the scandal-ridden Southern Poverty Law Center? What private group would be safe from government harassment?
The Left does not seem terribly devoted to restraint, nor do leftists seem concerned about payback. They focus on power and winning, and their actions suggest they believe their hold on power is only going to become more substantial and less contested in the near future.
This is why Obama’s IRS brazenly shook down Tea Party groups while treating the Clinton Foundation with kid gloves. This is also why the whole crew behind the Russian collusion investigation did what they did. They thought their movement was ascendant, that Hillary Clinton would win the White House, and that their corrupt misuse of government power would never be discovered. Even now, they still treat President Trump as a temporary anomaly. In a place like New York City, left-wing Democrats are nearly untouchable, giving us a preview of what they would do to the nation as a whole if given the chance.
This is not unknown territory. Politics has always been a bare-knuckle sport, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries the spoils system, outright cheating, voter suppression, and backroom deals were how things got done. Outside of electoral politics, anarchism and labor violence tore apart places like Chicago and Colorado. Three American presidents were assassinated between 1865 and 1901.
The ideals of a loyal opposition and the peaceful transition of power, along with limits on the use of government power for narrowly partisan purposes, were the product of a short-lived interregnum during the middle of the 20th century. While the 1960s convulsed the nation, a silent majority did elect both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. While they each faced political battles, their rights to the traditional powers of the office were not in question. Bipartisanship reflected a consensus on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy positions.
Politics Has Been Getting Rough
Starting with the 2000 election, we began to see signs of significant fracturing, along with an unwillingness to transfer power peacefully. This is somewhat forgotten because George W. Bush was briefly buoyed by the feelings of national unity after the 9/11 attacks. Prior to that, he faced inaugural protests and boycotts. The close Florida election devolved into a battle of lawyers that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was, in the words of his enemies, “selected not elected.”
After Bush’s narrow victory, new principles were announced that the Electoral College itself was illegitimate and that the popular vote was more important. This rhetoric was deployed again in 2016 against President Trump—this time with the connivance of certain Republicans alarmed at his populism.
For all their faults, the New Deal Democrats had limited aims. Both they and the Republicans respected the peaceful transition of power, because of their implicit respect for the American people and their choice. Close elections and messianic politics have brought that to an end. Today’s Left does not believe in being a loyal opposition, because leftists do not accept the possibility there can be a range of reasonable disagreement or that they may not be ascendant.
The very term “progressivism” implies that history has a particular direction, as well as a moral dimension. The Left’s electoral defeats have been blamed on cheating, foreign interference, and, when all that fails, are taken as a sign that the “deplorable” American people themselves do not deserve to rule themselves.
The older principle of a loyal opposition was superior, however, and not simply for the party that was out of power. Because fortunes change and today’s opposition may be tomorrow’s party in power, it is also a story of enlightened self-interest, where each side exercises restraint and fair play. But a loyal opposition can only exist in a more limited and less strife-ridden political environment, where many questions are off-limits and a large swath of matters are left to private choice.
That is to say, the more genteel politics of the 20th century arose from the fact that we actually were a united people, that our political disagreements took place within a particular range, and that government activity was bound both by the Constitution, as well as an unwritten constitution written into the character of the American people. The latter included such hoary chestnuts as “What you think is your business,” “A man’s home is his castle,” and “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
Freedom of Association as Core American Principle
This Americanism used to include the idea that people had a right to voluntary association and to petition their grievances. In other words, Americans used to respect the right of grassroots groups to organize out of their concern for an issue, whether that concern was their right to bear arms, the abortion debate, or to stay out of foreign wars. These groups were mostly off-limits to harassment by those in power, as both sides of political debates respected the principle of voluntary association. Certainly, no one thought they could be targeted for destruction by a state attorney general.
Indeed, private groups that had extensive corruption—such as the Teamsters—were never disbanded, even when subject to government investigations under federal racketeering laws. In that case, the union was placed under receivership for a period. Notably, the government’s remedy included a vote by Teamster members to restore the leadership’s accountability to the organization’s members.
America’s gun owners deserve a lobbying organization that is effective, a good steward of its resources, and focused on its mission. The NRA would be just fine without Wayne LaPierre or any of its other leaders. Its power comes not from its executives or its lobbyists’ rhetorical skills, but its large and motivated membership. The NRA should serve its members. But it should not, in fighting for its members, also have to fend off trumped-up charges and draconian remedies aimed at silencing its message.
We know from the pretextual harassment of churches and the destruction of small businesses in recent months that the government can be merciless in the hands of fanatic ideologues. The evolution of the Left into a combination of old-style corruption and modern ideological fanaticism is a symptom of a nation with little in common and little love between divergent factions.
The Second Amendment expresses the American Founding generation’s wariness of centralized power and unwillingness to depend on the good faith of one’s political opponents. In other words, it is a doomsday option for use in emergencies when ordinary political activity becomes impossible. Attacking an organization devoted to protecting gun rights reminds us of what is increasingly apparent: the Left wants to remove all obstacles to its consolidation of power and intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Americans.