Vittert: Neither party can glean power from fentanyl deaths

On Balance with Leland Vittert

(NewsNation) — The desire for political power explains just about everything in America.

It’s official now that fentanyl kills more — many more — young Americans than guns, according to CDC estimates. The numbers are indisputable. But you wouldn’t know that by watching network TV or reading America’s biggest newspapers.

The reason for that is simple. Dealing with fentanyl deaths gives power to Republican ideas,while focusing on gun deaths gives power to Democratic ideas.

First, the numbers for deaths among Americans ages 18 to 49. There were 79,000 fentanyl deaths in 2020 and 2021 combined. Compare that to the 58,000 gun deaths in 2020 and 2021. And yet, you don’t hear about fentanyl.

Sure, you know what’s happening, but nobody in Washington or the newsrooms of the major TV networks, seem to care when it does. I’ll give credit where credit is due to the Washington Post, which pointed it out in their article: “Cause of death: Washington faltered as fentanyl gripped America.” It’s a compelling story, complete with pictures of police overwhelmed by emotion associated with the sheer numbers of death. It’s actually not much different when you look at those pictures of police overwhelmed at school shootings.

But the Washington Post story is really only half a story. Washington faltered. We know that, but why? They point to a failure of the Drug Enforecement Administration. Consider another reason: Going after fentanyl is politically inconvenient. Neither side gains political power from it. Compare that to going after guns, which Democratic politicians love to do. The White House even turns over the podium in the press briefing room to Matthew McConaughey to go after guns.

Who was the last politician you saw or heard who was furious about fentanyl deaths? When was the last time you saw a politician furious about fentanyl deaths whom the national media covered being furious about fentanyl deaths?

On the other hand, talk about gun deaths and school shootings: Well, that allows reporters and politicians to link Republicans and dead kids. They can focus on the Supreme Court and people who don’t believe in the Second Amendment. Or they can focus on crazies in Congress who don’t believe in quote unquote “common sense gun control.”

They don’t have to talk about gangs or Democratic prosecutors letting the worst of the worst back out on the streets, nor do they have to talk about drug cartels. It’s all about mass shooters and evil and Republicans who they can blame. But for them, but for the evil Republicans and the mass shooters, AR-15s would be gone and we would all be safe. Just get rid of the AR-15s and gun violence goes away. It’s a very clear political argument.

Consider this tweet from the New York Times: The AR-15 has become a talisman for some right-wing politicians and voters. “That’s a particularly disturbing trend at a time when violent political rhetoric and actual political violence in the United States are rising,” writes the editorial board.

The photo that they attached is particularly telling: Those are shotgun shells, not rounds from an AR-15. Nobody at The New York Times could tell the difference between shotgun shells and the rifle rounds from the killing machines that they so hate, but think simply abolishing them will solve all of our problems. It is very hard to argue expertise when you don’t know the difference between shotgun rounds and rifle rounds.

That’s how you know it’s political. It never was about saving lives. We know that because now we talk about the leading cause of death for young Americans: Fentanyl.

Fentanyl brings up all sorts of uncomfortable conversations and questions, the plight of rural America and Appalachia. Up until recently, the opioid crisis hit rural America and poor white Americans particularly hard, and helping them doesn’t do much for either party.

The New York Times doesn’t have a West Virginia or rural Ohio or Northern Kentucky bureau. Nobody makes fentanyl in the United States; it almost exclusively comes across a porous southern border. That is a very uncomfortable conversation for many politicians. So is talking about an overwhelmed DEA. So is talking about gangs who play the game with lax, big city prosecutors, so their dealers and pushers and gunmen Get Out of Jail quick. I could go on, of course.

But the answer to fentanyl and opioids requires politicians and journalists to confront uncomfortable truths. The alleged answers to mass shootings and guns gives them political power. Their focus on guns tells you everything you need to know. It’s not about saving lives. It’s about power.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not of NewsNation.

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