The NRA may seem unstoppable but history says otherwise
Political pressure groups that seemed unbeatable have lost before
Historians cite four examples, two from recent events
He was a frail, silver-haired man with thick glasses who sold limes on a corner in Miami’s Cuban community. But passers-by knew that Orlando Bosch was no ordinary vendor.
Some stuffed $100 bills in his shirt pockets without taking a lime. Others waved Cuban flags and honked their horns as they drove by. Bosch had been linked to at least 50 attacks targeting Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba. He once fired a bazooka at a freighter he thought was headed to Cuba. His unyielding hatred of Castro made him a hero to many in Miami’s Cuban-exile community.
Bosch’s veneration served as a warning to any politician or public figure who ever thought of crossing the “Cuba lobby” – a group of anti-Castro zealots – by hinting at normalizing relations with Cuba, says Benjamin Bishin, a political science professor at University of California, Riverside. He recounts Bosch’s story in his book, “Tyranny of the Minority.”
“Julio Iglesias once said at a Miami night club that he wouldn’t mind visiting Cuba, and people booed him off the stage and rioted,” Bishin says. “A woman called Castro a great educator, and her office was bombed.”
Then, last December, the Cuba lobby faced an unexpected turn of events: President Barack Obama announced that, after 50 years of hostility, the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. It was a stunning defeat for a group that once seemed invincible.
“You couldn’t forecast it because you didn’t know it was going to happen, but it happens much more than people think,” Bishin says of powerful political groups that suffer sudden downfalls.
Could the National Rifle Association ever face a similar fate? Most Americans probably don’t think so. When a gunman murdered nine people at a community college in Oregon earlier this month, the President seemed to express what many Americans were thinking when he said, “Somehow this has become routine. … We have become numb to this.”
There’s a pervasive belief that any attempt to tighten gun laws would be futile because too many politicians are afraid to defy the NRA. But there are at least four examples from American history – including two snatched from recent headlines – where ordinary people and unforeseen events defeated a seemingly invincible lobbying group, and hardly anyone saw it coming.
The Cuba lobby’s defeat was one such example, Bishin says. After Castro took power in 1959, Cubans who fled to Miami were so passionate about his overthrow that no public figure could propose reconciliation for half a century. This small group of Cuban Americans dictated U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. But demographics eventually trumped passion. Older Cubans like Bosch were replaced by a younger generation of Cubans who wanted closer economic and travel ties to their ancestral home, Bishin says.
Such a stunning reversal of fortune doomed another organization that was even more powerful than the NRA is today – a group that one commentator said perfected the art of “political retribution.”
It was called the Anti-Saloon League.
The first political ‘pressure group’
Cheers erupted across America. People staged rallies and praised God during church services. The Rev. Billy Sunday, a popular evangelist, told a crowd of 10,000 people gathered at a church in Norfolk, Virginia:
“Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”
Americans were celebrating congressional approval in 1919 of the Volstead Act, which enforced Prohibition. The temperance movement helped make Prohibition possible. But the group that pushed through passage of the 18th Amendment was the Anti-Saloon League, or the ASL.
The ASL was led by Wayne Wheeler, who coined the term “pressure group.” Under Wheeler, the ASL pioneered lobbying tactics now routinely used by groups like the NRA, says Daniel Okrent, author of “The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
“I’m convinced that they were the most powerful pressure group in American history,” Okrent says. “They brought about a constitutional amendment.”