Politics: The Real Meaning of the Word ‘Prompt’

Published 7:07 pm Sunday, May 22, 2022

By Thomas L. Knapp

“Failed gun legislation is the norm,” reads the headline at Axios, “after mass shootings like Buffalo tragedy.” Further down in the story, we read that an October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas “prompted fresh calls from lawmakers on both sides to pass gun control legislation.”

Also relating to the Buffalo shooting, the Sunbury, Pennsylvania Daily Item reports that it “prompted GOP legislative leaders to call Monday for the reinstatement of New York’s death penalty law for murders fueled by racism and hatred.”

I read a lot of news stories each and every day, and I’m always surprised at how often I see various events characterized as “prompting” calls for action — the same calls, for the same actions, from the same people who were making exactly the same calls for exactly the same actions long before the events in question.

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In context, use of the word “prompt” COULD be correct in the theatrical sense: A cue for an actor to read well-memorized lines at the most opportune time.

But in context, most of these stories seem to use it in a different sense, per the 1913 edition of Webster’s: “To instigate; to incite …. To suggest; to dictate.”

That is, the stories would have us believe that the “prompted” politicians and activists weren’t pushing for Policy X before Event Y, but are doing so now because of Event Y. They once were blind but now can see, see?

In reality, most of us don’t change our minds very often, or about very many things. And politicians and activists  resemble that remark on steroids.

They got where they are — whether it’s the US House of Representatives or the leadership of the Brady Campaign to Encourage … er, “United Against” … Gun Violence — by advocating for or against Policy X. Abandoning that advocacy isn’t a sound job security move; doubling down on it is.

Politicians and activists genuinely changing their minds is  extremely rare. When a politician even pretends to do so, it’s usually at a glacial pace and in an effort to get more in step with his or her party or faction so as to receive promotions (for example, see the correlation between Joe Biden’s presidential campaigns and his positions on abortion over the decades).

In most cases, claims of Event X “prompting” calls for Policy Y should be understood to mean “Supporters of Policy Y Seize Opportunity to Grandstand on Event X.”

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.