A few weeks ago, the National Rifle Association appointed its next president, Oliver North, the former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who was at the heart of the Iran Contra scandal and subsequently a Fox News host and commentator. It seems like, based on North’s first statements as NRA president calling the tactics of some of the gun control-supporting survivors of the Parkland shooting a form of “civil terrorism,” that he will continue the NRA’s recent aggressive rhetoric.
Over the past year or so, the NRA has expanded beyond its given mission to protect Second Amendment rights into a myriad of culture war battles. In September of last year, the NRA released an ad in opposition to the NFL national anthem protests. More prominently, the NRA has joined the President’s battle against the so-called “Fake News” by releasing a series of videos showing dramatic symbolic attacks on outlets such as the New York Times and CNN. Furthermore, the NRA has gone after the public school system, Hollywood, and socialists at various points. This pivot, from a straight advocacy organization to simply another member of the right-wing culture war army, is not a healthy one for the protection of the Second Amendment.
The NRA’s move towards broad political fights mirrors the change in the behavior of an arguably equivalent organization on the left: Planned Parenthood. Arguably even more detested by conservatives than the NRA is by liberals, Planned Parenthood has also expanded its mission beyond its stated goal to allow people to make “independent, informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives.” Whether you agree or disagree with Planned Parenthood’s positions on abortion and contraception, it’s undeniable that they have strayed from this mission.
The most glaring example of Planned Parenthood’s new role as a left-liberal organization regardless of the specific issues is its statement in opposition to the appointment of former UN ambassador John Bolton to the role of National Security Adviser. While a noted hawkish hardliner on foreign policy, the diplomat (perhaps a stretch of the term) has a much softer stance on social issues and has not been especially outspoken on the issue of abortion in his political career. Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that Bolton’s position on abortion, no matter what it is, is entirely irrelevant to his role as NSA.
Both organizations’ transformations from single-issue activist groups to culture war broadsiders make the current polarized state of American politics even worse. The message is clear: to support Planned Parenthood’s mission, one must be on board for the Democratic Party’s agenda; to support the NRA, one must support the Republican Party’s platform. This broadening of purpose leaves people without perfect party line political views lost in the wilderness.
Pro-choice foreign policy hawks should feel welcome to support Planned Parenthood; supporters of both universal health care and the Second Amendment should have a home with the NRA.
At their best, single-issue advocacy organizations should, theoretically, form places for largely opposed groups to find common ground. For instance, until recently, a degree of skepticism about law enforcement was a staple of NRA rhetoric: current chief executive of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, famously warned about the threat “jack-booted government thugs” posed to gun rights.
Now, that natural distrust, which should go hand-in-hand with limited government values, has fallen by the wayside. Ideally, the NRA’s concern about “government thugs” would dovetail with the concerns of many left-leaning activists, who protested the killing of Philando Castile, an African-American gun owner, at the hands of the police in 2016. However, the NRA remained silent on the issue, an unfortunate missed opportunity for typically left and right groups to work together against injustice.
As long as these organizations devote their time and energy to circling the wagons around their respective political tribes, they will be actively contributing to our polarized politics. A plurality of American voters do not identify with either political party and both political sides should make an effort to welcome in people who aren’t purebred partisans. Unfortunately, these organizations seem to have chosen to prioritize point-scoring in the culture war before keeping their primary purpose open to everyone who might support it. Ultimately, what I ask of these activist groups, no matter what side they are associated with, is to return to their bread and butter and stop with the tribalistic bomb-throwing, because, as Jon Stewart once said, “You’re hurting America.”