05/01/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013


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The New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, thinks that the Senate's failure to pass universal background checks for prospective gun owners was Barack Obama's fault. She turns on him because the defeat occurred despite the fact that 94 percent of the American people approve of such a reform. The reason for the failure, she writes, is that the president "...still has not learned to govern." Dowd contends the Bill could have passed if Obama had engaged in more personal efforts at persuasion with members of Congress. He failed to do so, she writes, because "Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do."

Hers is a nostalgia trip, a longing for the omnipotent arm-twisting that Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have engaged in. As such, it entirely misses the point -- both with regard to Johnson and Obama. The former's success in cajoling with regard to, for example, Civil Rights legislation occurred because advocates of progress were well-organized and in the streets. The Civil Rights Movement not only was persuasive; its mobilization represented political power. Obama's situation is entirely different. Opinion is on the side of strengthening the background check law. But organizing on behalf of reform is just now getting underway.

The absence of well-organized grassroots support was fatal. In the absence of a mass mobilization, there is no powerful counterweight to the political use of wealth by the gun lobby. Campaign contribution data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics are astonishing. Since 1989 "gun rights" groups have made more than $30 million in political donations. In contrast as the Center reports, "gun control groups...have been barely a blip on the radar screen," with just under $2 million during the same period. It is true that Michael Bloomberg's pro-gun control Super PAC promises in the future to somewhat redress this imbalance. But the lopsided pattern will persist, reinforced by the fact that a similar imbalance exists with regard to lobbying efforts.

Under these circumstances even a master of the system such as Lyndon Johnson could not have done much more than Obama's failed effort. The opposition is both better organized and financed than the proponents of reform.

More generally, the gun control problem dramatically illustrates the structural impediments that face progressives in this country. Private wealth has stacked the political deck. Though in principle the power of mobilized citizens could counter a conservative political bias, the fact is that today the political power of wealth is virtually unchecked. Not enough grassroots organizing has been undertaken to generate an effective push-back to the flood of private money that has saturated the political system.

The problem is that grassroots organizing is a labor-intensive activity. Organizing on a national level requires putting a very large number of full-time political activists to work. Such individuals need to be paid and provided with materials. It cannot be done cheaply. What makes these costs debilitating is the fact that sources of financing for such political organizing are all but unavailable.

Progressive funders -- particularly foundations -- have stayed away from political organizing because those efforts cannot promise the short-term "deliverables" that funders seek. They think of themselves as investors, seeking a quick legislative return on their investment -- typically, a law passed during the current legislative session. This expectation all but rules out grants to support grassroots organizing -- always a long-term project for which the timing of legislation is unpredictable.

Seen in this light, the fact that over 90 percent support failed to result in the passage of background checks for gun purchases was not so much Obama's fault as it was a symptom of a systemic problem with two dimensions. On one hand, reforms that will reduce the profitability of a sector of the economy (gun manufacturers in this case) or reduce the power of wealth more generally are certain to result in heavily financed counter-attacks. On the other hand the ability to challenge the power of wealth with mobilized numbers requires financing for political organizing which, at least to date, has not been made adequately available.

The power of the gun lobby is rooted in its role in private campaign finance. For all the talk of a gun culture in the United States and the invocation of the limits imposed by the Second Amendment, the real problem is that the views possessed by a huge majority of Americans do not possess political salience. In the absence of grassroots activism, majority opinion has been overwhelmed by the clout exercised by pro-gun political donors.

As with guns, so it is with campaign finance. People do not have to be convinced that public policy is distorted by wealth. But the alternative of public funding has not been adopted because the public has not been mobilized on behalf of that reform.

The structure of those problems suggests its solution. Both gun control and the public funding of election campaigns are potentially fruitful areas for political organizers. But for that work to be done, progressive funders will have to be persuaded that these areas need their support and that success in issues of concern to progressives require extended periods of grassroots mobilizing.