LEFT IN THE DARK: Some potentially bipartisan issues are getting clouded in the highly partisan 2014 election cycle.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Amid all the talk about Obamacare, the economy, Obamacare, the “War on Women” and Obamacare — to name a few hot-button topics — some potentially bipartisan issues are getting left in the dust.
Topics with some flashpoint moments over the last couple years — namely, the militarization of police, government surveillance and even crony capitalism, are being left out of much of the political discourse, if debate content and ads are any indication.
In a particularly polarized moment in history in American politics, issues with potential of drawing support from both sides of the aisle seem to be left to the wayside.
In Virginia, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis has hammered the militarization of police and the government privileging of particular firms in the U.S. Senate race — but he hasn’t been allowed in debates with Republican Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist and political strategist, and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a past governor.
Dave Brat, the Republican 7th District House candidate with a populist strain who unseated Wall Street-connected, former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has spoken out against corporate welfare.
But on the whole in Virginia and around the country, these issues aren’t major campaign drivers. Experts say reasons for the relative silence range from a loss in general public interest to the reality the companies and industries that have a stake in maintaining the status quo heavily back hopefuls and incumbents with an eye on Washington.
There are at least a couple reasons why crony capitalism — in which government privileges particular industries or companies, often at the expense of the common taxpayer — isn’t a major campaign issue for candidates, said Matt Mitchell, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
“One possibility, to give them the benefit of the doubt, is that it’s kind of a nuanced idea and it’s difficult for politicians to express that nuance,” Mitchell told Watchdog.org.
Republicans, in particular, say they want to lift taxation or other burdens on businesses — and so, sometimes, think any break is a good one.
“It’s a little bit more complicated,” Mitchell said.
There’s another, more worrisome reason why politicians on the left and right sides of the political spectrum just don’t seem to care.
“I think a more cynical possibility is that obviously there are well-funded interests that benefit from government favors and privileges,” he said.
It’s interesting to Mitchell, because in a way, one of the major events in America’s move to independence was a rebellion against crony capitalism. People often think the folks involved in the Boston Tea Party were just upset over taxes, but that wasn’t really it, Mitchell said. The Boston patriots were protesting a tax cut that only one company received — the East India Tea Company, chartered by the British crown.
In a day and age where the public is tired of extreme politics, it’s an issue that doesn’t have to fall on party lines, he said.
“Traditionally it’s been something that has the potential to kind of cross both sides,” Mitchell said.
Historically, the Democratic Party has opposed export-import banks, Mitchell said.
Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, when he was a senator, opposed the Export-Import Bank, for instance — before they supported it. Obama dubbed it “corporate welfare.”
“I think politicians are missing out on an opportunity to really talk on this,” Mitchell said. “People are sometimes more motivated by inequitable policy than just burdensome policy.”
There was a time when it was taboo — unconstitutional, actually — for a state government to favor a particular firm, Mitchell said.
“My concern is that now it’s basically standard practice for members of both parties to offer lucrative packages and exclusive privileges to particular firms to get them to relocate, that was not always the case,” Mitchell said. “I’m very concerned when there will become a point when people will no longer be able to distinguish between capitalism and crony capitalism.”
Heavily armed and spying
The militarized equipping of local police forces, which gripped the nation in light of events in Ferguson, Mo., and government surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations, have faded as other issues have taken center stage.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., said Americans are simply becoming accustomed to being watched.
“We’ve moved into the post-Snowden era in my opinion, where people have acclimated” to being watched, Whitehead said. “… They’re accepting the fact that we live in a surveillance state. I think they’re also accepting the militarized police.”
If the majority of Americans saw these as urgent issues, candidates would be forced to talk about them, he said.
“All the information is out there for people to realize we live in a police state and we could turn it back by citizen action,” Whitehead said.
Candidates — especially in the higher realms of American politics — can’t afford to sound crazy, he said.
“I’ve seen a few out there talking about it, but I think when it comes to placating voters I think they don’t want to sound too extreme,” Whitehead said.
He said so many politicians are funded by the very companies leading the way in surveillance and defense technology — companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing — that few are willing to speak out against the uncurbed use of things like drones.
“Some of their corporate funding is coming from the industries that profit from surveillance and militarized police, so why would they say something?” Whitehead asked.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia doesn’t comment on political races, but Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said the importance of civilian oversight of police — especially in light of recent reports of police collecting cell phone data in and storing license plate data without warrants in Virginia — can’t be underestimated.
“There’s an overarching issue here, and the overarching issue for us is the lack of civilian oversight,” she told Watchdog.org.
Increasingly, sheriffs and police chiefs are acting as if they’re “completely outside” citizen authority, she said, adding that the use of drones without a warrant, by use of a police force or any other authority, is a violation of basic rights.
The lack of urgency expressed by Whitehead and Mitchell is something Gastañaga senses on a regular basis when it comes to police surveillance.
At nearly every event she speaks at, Gastañaga said people ask why they should care about government monitoring their steps, if they aren’t up to anything nefarious.
“Without privacy, there is no liberty,” she said. “… I think people need to understand whether that’s the future, the current, present reality is that if you don’t have privacy, you don’t have liberty.”
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.