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Imaginary majority

Why Baucus voted against background checks

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To call Manchin-Toomey the most popular piece of legislation to fail the U.S. Senate this year would be irresponsible, because what does "popular" mean, anyway? The amendment to implement criminal background checks for all firearm purchases—currently, they're only required for purchases from licensed dealers—had bipartisan support, but plenty of unpopular ideas have that.

The federal income tax, for example, or not being allowed to go to the National Archive and take an Instagram of your baby lying directly on the Constitution both enjoy broad support across the aisle. So what senators like is not necessarily what the American people are into, for better or worse.

You can't trust the polls, either. Between 83 and 90 percent of respondents say they favor expanded background checks, but we all know statistics lie. Just because The Washington Post, CNN, Quinnipiac and CBS each found that Americans overwhelmingly support criminal and mental health checks for all advertised gun sales doesn't mean it's what voters want.

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Such polls notoriously skew toward people who own landlines, and they sorely underrepresent those Americans who, hearing a ringing sound in their homes, whirled around and shot the phone. That kind of unscientific survey, albeit technically scientific, is no substitute for representative government. America is a republic, not a democracy, and if we all voted on everything by phone Kelly Clarkson would be Secretary of the Treasury right now.

By the same principle, you can't just let the Senate do what a majority of senators want. Casual fans of legislative government may be surprised to learn that Manchin-Toomey failed with 54 votes in support and 46 against—the kind of numerical majority that previous Senates called a win. In the 2013 session, however, Manchin-Toomey was a lock for Republican filibuster, and proponents knew they needed a 60-vote supermajority to bring it to the floor.

That didn't happen. Despite majority support in the Senate, overwhelming consensus in the polls and the quiet parents of Newtown, Conn., in the gallery, the Senate moved April 17 to keep letting whomever buy firearms at gun shows and on the internet.

Probably it was the wise thing to do, because who ever met a crazy person at a gun show or on the internet? Maybe it was even popular. But the death of the Manchin-Toomey amendment sure wasn't democratic.

Four Senate Democrats voted nay in Wednesday's attempt to break Republican filibuster: Alaska's Mark Begich, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Arkansas's Mark Pryor and Montana's own Max Baucus. As Ezra Klein pointed out in the Post's Wonkblog, all four come from rural states with low populations and active gun cultures. Begich and Pryor also face tough elections next year. It is reasonable to say that in last week's Senate, a small percentage of swing voters from three of the least-populated states in the union overruled the wishes of a vast majority of Americans.

That doesn't sound so great, though. Better to go with the single-word explanation for his vote that Baucus offered the Los Angeles Times: "Montana."

That is true. Baucus is the senior senator from Montana, whose population of one million has seated him among those lawmakers who represent the smallest number of actual Americans—right down there with Alaska and North Dakota. But that's how the Senate works. Why shouldn't we get just as much say as any other state? With a little help from a Republican filibuster, why shouldn't we get more say than all the other states put together?

Everybody knows that we Montanans love our guns. There is no specific polling evidence to say how we feel about preventing the mentally ill from buying guns on the internet, but probably we hate it. Montana has a gun culture, whatever that means, and last week Baucus took our general sense of how people like us probably feel and imposed it on the rest of the country.

It may not have been democratic, at any level. It may not even have been popular. But in terms of satisfying our knee-jerk associations with that one word, "Montana," it was politically expedient.

Call it the imaginary majority. They don't respond to polls, they don't compose a majority of votes in the Senate, but they cast the swing votes in future elections. They play to stereotypes, and they don't go in for such fine distinctions as exist between "expanded background checks at gun shows and on the internet" and, you know, "guns."

The imaginary majority likes its politics in one word. That's what makes them such a powerful force in American government—more powerful than Senate majorities or polls or any specific policy idea. They're easy to represent: You just think of what you already know about the kind of people who are going to vote in your next election, and you ignore everything else.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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