Why #NoBillNoBreak Is A Bad Thing (Even For Democrats)

House Democrats tested the patience of their Republican colleagues — and the battery life of their smartphones — last night, streaming their sit-in over gun control into the wee hours of the night and the next day. The protest, lead by Civil Rights legend and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, aims to force a vote on proposed legislation which would close the so-called “terrorist loophole” which allows those on the FBI’s Terror Watch List and No-Fly List to purchase a gun — and expand requirements for background checks. It’s the second stand on the Hill of its kind since the deadliest mass shooting in American history, following Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster last week.

One might wonder what’s gotten into Congressional Democrats. Once too timid to challenge the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on the legislative branch, the massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub seems to have awoken a pound of historic political courage not seen in a generation. Could it be possible our Senators and Representatives have transformed their numbness and frustration surrounding mass shootings into vindication and.strength?

But as much as Lewis’ bold move is an inspiring display of conviction, it’s also a terrible sign for anything actually getting done. If Democrats seem more willing to stand up for gun control, it’s because they actually can do so without risking their seats or the seats of their fellow Democrats. As Congress — and the nation — become more and more divided, leaders dependent on reelection can feel free to swing further and further to their ideological extremes. This might be good news for progressives jealous of the fire under the feet of Republicans, but the further they move apart, the further away they move from collaborating on policy.

As Jamelle Bouie at Slate points out, the Congressional makeup of the Democratic Party has undergone significant changes during the presidency of Barack Obama, enabling more willpower on gun control. “The Democratic majority of 2007–2008 — and even 2009–2010,” he writes, “was more liberal than previous majorities, but it still spanned wide divides of geography and ideology.” Moderate House Democrats — so called “Blue Dogs” typically opposing gun control — numbered 50 in 2008, but dropped to just 26 in 2010 and 15 in 2014. As Bouie points out, this has left behind “a geographically smaller party, with many more liberals and a proportionately greater number of representatives from dense urban areas.”

Just as the liberals have gotten more liberal, conservatives have likewise moved further into their own corner. In fact, conservatives move away from the center is part of a larger, multi-generational drift starting during the Reagan administration. According to the DW-NOMINATE scale of partisanship developed by Princeton researchers Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthal, the mean level of conservatism among House Republicans has swung sharply upward since 1980 and continues to do so.Some have wondered if popular support for more adamant liberals — like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — are the genesis of a similar movement on their end of the spectrum.

If it is, The House and Senate could possibly become even more divided — and less productive. According to that same scale of partisanship — which uses 0 to represent the ideological middle — Republicans have achieved a partisan ranking of 0.8 while Democrats have barely broken -0.4. If liberal Democrats were to have the same groundswell of support among the electorate Republicans have enjoyed, it could push the parties further apart and make them increasingly less likely to compromise their positions.

While that might sound promising to staunch conservatives or liberals, it often results in neither side achieving their respective legislative goals — or any legislation at all. The two last sessions of Congress — starting in 2010 and 2012 — were the least and second least productive in Congressional history, respectively. 2015 may have seen some slight improvement, but overall the most divided Congress in a century — meaning the one with the least number of moderates — is also the least likely to accomplish anything.

It’s hard to criticize Lewis and the House Democrats on the floor right now for this, nor would it be right to excuse the GOP for their immobility. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have purposefully and famously obstructed even modest legislation from Democrats and the President, denying far more hearings and bills than Democrats did while they held majorities between 2006 and 2010. While the aforementioned data supports the claim that Republicans have become more partisan, one only understand the ineffectiveness of Congress to know the effect that ideological rigidity has on our country.

Given that barrier, it makes sense for Democrats to turn to unconventional means to achieve their goals. Barack Obama has executive actions, but it leaves Congressional office holders like John Lewis and Chris Murphy with few tools to fight against the growing conservative partisanship. Filibusters and protests can be active political methods to both force your agenda on the legislative body and, in the always-on mediastorm, gather some attention to your cause.

Except taking a stance also points out your vulnerabilities. Because the electorate is mirroring the divide in Congress, moderate Democrats and Republicans are both facing opposition in their home districts. Standing up for something controversial like gun control signals them out as potential losers in future elections. It’s no mistake that these two events come from extremely secure politicians — Chris Murphy comes from the strong blue state of Connecticut (which also happens to be home to Sandy Hook Elementary) and John Lewis has been re-elected 14 times in a row since 1988. Neither really has much to lose in this fight.

The more comfortable the electorate is with relentless support for a partisan position, the less any candidate will have to worry about offending them by striking a strong stance, making them all the more invulnerable. This might seem cynical, but it’s honestly how a representative government is supposed to work. While a politician might be derided for doing or saying something, it’s generally what we want from elected officials — to represent our wishes and interests. Lewis and Murphy are emblematic not just of their home states but of the widespread support for increased background checks and closing the terrorist loophole.

The problem is, as more and more representatives are enforced by their own electorate not to bend, it’s unlikely they will ever see it. On this issue and others, it’s a scenario that benefits Republicans, who — simply due to their conservatism — have more to gain by preventing government regulations and laws. Democrats may have as much to gain by passing them, but as the boldness of the sit-in indicates, it’s unlikely either side will see that happen.