Voice

How the zombie apocalypse affects interest group politics

Over at the Guardian, Ed Pilkington notes a rather curious silence from a powerful American interest group:

The National Rifle Association is so tied up fighting new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting that it has failed so far to mount its expected lobbying blitz against a new international arms control control treaty.

With just a few weeks to go until the world's first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is put to a final vote at a UN conference in New York campaigners have voiced surprise at the NRA's relative silence on the issue. Until the Newtown tragedy, in which 20 young children died in their classrooms on 14 December, the UN's attempt to contain the loosely regulated international trade in weapons had been one of the gun lobby's biggest targets....

[A]head of the final ATT conference, which opens on 18 March, the NRA has been notable by its absence. Though the organisation continues to vow that it will do all in its power to prevent the arms trade coming into effect – arguing that it is a "ticking time-bomb" and "the most serious threat to American gun owners in decades" – it has not been applying the same strong-arm tactics as it did in 2012.

So what's up? Pilkington suggests that the NRA is so distracted fighting against domestic gun control measures that it's taken its eye off the ball of this treaty -- particlarly since, according to the American Bar Association, there's nothing in the ATT to infringe on Second Amendment rights. 

That might be true, but let me suggest an alternative hypothesis based on LaPierre's own rhetoric. The standard NRA defense against gun control has been concern about a Leviathan stripping citizens of their right to bear arms. Based on LaPierre's recent Daily Caller essay, however, I think they've switched arguments. The concern is no longer about creeping totalitarianism; it's creeping anarchy:

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival. It’s responsible behavior, and it’s time we encourage law-abiding Americans to do just that....

Responsible Americans realize that the world as we know it has changed. We, the American people, clearly see the daunting forces we will undoubtedly face: terrorists, crime, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest or natural disaster.

Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there—or simply doesn’t show up in time.

To preserve the inalienable, individual human right to keep and bear arms—to withstand the siege that is coming—the NRA is building a four-year communications and resistance movement (emphasis added).

They say "communications and resistance movement," I say "doomsday preppers."   

I'm hardly the only one to notice this kind of doomsday prepper rhetoric from LaPierre. What's interesting is that the NRA's allies in Congress are talking the same way. Gail Collins offers up the following Lindsey Graham quote: 

The senator from South Carolina wanted to know what people were supposed to do with a lousy two-shell shotgun “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”

Do you think Graham spends a lot of time watching old episodes of “Doomsday Preppers?” Does he worry about zombies? That definitely would require a lot of firepower (emphasis added).

I don't know if Graham worries about zombies, but I've given this matter some thought, and I do wonder if there's a fusion of various apocalyptic fears going on in some political quarters. 

To get back  to the Arms Trade Treaty, since Newtown the NRA appears to have shifted tactics in its arguments about the necessity to bear arms. But the fear of state collapse is a very different logic from a fear of an overpowering state. If you believe that governments will simply crumble at the first sign of a threat, then you're not gonna bother lobbying against some silly international treaty. It's not like the ATT will make a difference when the s**t hits the fan. Rather, groups like the NRA should be more concerned with declining gun ownership rates in the United States

In the argot of international relations theory, a leader or organization that finds itself trapped by its political rhetoric is suffering from "blowback." In an irony of ironies, I wonder if the NRA's shift in rhetoric has hamstrung its lobbying efforts on the Arms Trade Treaty.

Daniel W. Drezner

Why post-Chavez Venezuela won't be a U.S. ally anytime soon

The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language. 

Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States. 

So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.? 

I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories. 

International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer

Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:

1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard

2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.

3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian

4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.

5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt. 

6) Make sure the United States is closely allied with the enduring rival of the country in question.

7) Inculcate a long history of accusations of nutty, American-led conspiracies from the political elite. 

8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader. 

Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon. 

Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.

Am I missing anything?