“Earth Breaks heat record again, but not by as much as before” reports the Associated Press. Phew. I skim the article, finish drinking my morning coffee and fry a few eggs for breakfast. 

“Bleaching kills off ‘third of Great Barrier Reef coral’,” my wife reads to me from an Al Jazeera headline as we lie in bed. I look at her and say nothing. Five minutes later, we’re both asleep.

As I head through the security line at the airport, my phone buzzes with a New York Times push notification: “Orlando Gunman Attacks Gay Nightclub, Leaving 50 Dead.” I put my phone through the X-ray machine and then run to my gate.


Kourtney Baltazar (right) holds a candle for a friend murdered June 12 in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

By the time I read the news that there were 42 other deadly shootings around the country that same day — including five dead children — and that 21 southwestern areas all had temperatures above 117 degrees, I don’t even have the emotional capacity left to feel sorrow. I try to dwell on it, but the numbers are too high — too remote. It’s just another day in America.

I forget that it doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way.

“Somehow this has become routine. My response at this podium is routine. We’ve become numb to this,” President Obama said last October after the mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. “Each time this happens, I am going to say that we can actually do something about it, but we’re going to have to change our laws.”

In the nine months since that speech, more than 9,800 people have been shot and killed in America.

Yet, on June 20, after a 15-hour filibuster forced a Senate vote on gun control, four different amendments requiring stricter background checks failed in the Senate. And the House of Representatives 25-hour sit-in wasn’t enough even to earn a vote on gun regulation.

It’s OK, because nobody expected a bill to pass. Our government doesn’t do bipartisan anymore. It’s now been 22 years since Congress has approved any meaningful gun control legislation.

Los Angeles smog global warming air pollution

Vehicle pollution is a major contributor to global warming and to the brown cloud of smog covering Los Angeles.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And then, last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan proposed to repeal “all climate-change regulations under the Clean Air Act.” He knows that no Democratic president will sign a bill to dismantle the EPA. He’s just trying to keep the conversation hovering between action and no action.

Clog the gears of government enough times and it too becomes normal.

In my last column I quoted part of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis from his book, “On the Origins of Political Order.” It’s worth repeating that passage again:

Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments. But political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances. …

Human beings are rule-following animals by nature; they are born to conform to the social norms they see around them. … When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change.

We know what’s causing warming temperatures and gun deaths and we know how to solve them. Yet “legions of entrenched stakeholders” are opposing any change at all.

US Capitol building Congress Senate silhouette washington DC. 7 june 2016

It has been 22 years since Congress has approved meaningful gun-control legislation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Because as soon as you admit that that gun deaths and climate change are solvable, then, just as the NRA and Heartland Institute keep warning, it is a slippery slope towards significant government intervention. So the extremist wing of the Republican Party is forced to make a choice between dogmatic adherence to the ideology of limited government or working towards solving the crisis at hand. And they’ve chosen dogma.

We’ve inherited a 240-year-old democratic system that was meant to foster continual compromise on the changing balance between liberty and order. And Republican ideology has helped shape our society into what it is today. We need a political party that will fight against an unresponsive bureaucracy; we need conservative values to help us understand our role in a changing society; and we need to embrace the mandate of individual responsibility that lies at the core of the GOP. In short, we need conservatism to temper the perpetual excesses of progressivism.

But there should be no room for extremism. Because the game doesn’t work when one party refuses to come to the table.

As Fukuyama warned, “societies can get stuck in a dysfunctional institutional equilibrium, in which existing stakeholders can veto necessary institutional change.”  

And so in a congressional arena that was created to force consensus, we remain deadlocked over whether to respond at all. 

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights hero and leader of the House sit-in, called the modest gun proposals “a down payment on ending gun violence,” rather than an actual solution.

Screen shot from CSPAN.

Shortly after this screen shot from CSPAN, during a sit-in by Democrats calling for gun control, House Speaker Paul Ryan ordered the cameras in the House to be turned off.


And Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, recently explained the lack of options for potential climate change legislation by saying, “I would think I would concentrate on the Hill … where we can find some common ground on the investment side, on the clean energy side, etc. and not go for a grand attack on an economy wide program.”

Meanwhile, to get to the level of gun deaths acceptable in other developed nations, we’d need to reduce gun deaths by 98 percent.

That’s not a typo.

And in order to keep climate change within 2 degrees Celsiusglobal carbon emissions need to peak in 2020 and then drop by 10 percent every year until zeroing out in 2045. Again, that’s not a typo.

The only solution to our outsize gun problem is to reduce the number of guns in our country. Yes, that means gun confiscation. And the only solution to climate change is to reduce emissions from every sector of the economy. Yes, that means a tax on carbon.  

But instead of working out the complex regulatory framework necessary for either action, our politicians are forced to compromise over whether to even get up off the starting block.

And so we’re stuck debating over background checks (despite the vanishingly small portion of gun deaths perpetrated by terrorists on the no-fly list), assault-rifle bans (despite the fact that just three percent of gun deaths are from rifles), and the government’s authority to regulate power-plant emissions (despite the reality that emissions from transportation are higher than from electricity).

Tomorrow, 37 more Americans likely will be shot and killed; this year will be the hottest year in recorded history; and an unyielding right-wing ideology will continue to insist that there is nothing we can do about it. But despite the daily barrage of headlines, we can never accept gun deaths, climate change and ideological obstructionism as our new normal. These are failures of political will, not forces of nature.

And to accept them as part of the American experience, is to accept the failure of the American political system.

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