Category Archives: Politics

Virginia Is for Psychos

I don’t know how good the social science is, but this is too good to pass up. A study by Ryan H. Murphy, an economics professor at Southern Methodist University, has ranked the 48 contiguous U.S. states by “psychopathy,” or anti-social behavior.

It is disconcerting to see the Old Dominion ranking No. 10 on the list. Are Virginians that whacko? Perhaps so — and I have a theory to explain it. Murphy eliminated Washington, D.C., from the ranking because its standardized score was off the carts — almost twice as high as the highest-ranking state, Connecticut. My theory is that psychopathic behavior in D.C. spills over into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Please note that Maryland is ranked No. 11, right behind Virginia. I hypothesize that the Old Dominion’s score was diluted by regions of state that are sociologically similar to neighboring North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee, among the least psycho states in the country. If we could isolate Northern Virginia, we would find that it is almost as loco as D.C.

Treading where Murphy dared not go, I have correlated each state’s psychopathology “Z score” with its vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Clearly, there is correlation between psychopathy and voting for Hillary! The R² suggests that 27% of the variability between states can be explained by the relationship between the two variables. Haha!

Hey, don’t look at me. It’s not my data. I’m just plotting the correlation.

OK, OK, I’m peddling junk science. There may be other explanations. Except for the outlier of Wyoming, there appears to be a strong correlation between urban states and the presence of anti-social traits in the population. Urban centers are more transient than small towns and rural areas. People are more anonymous and have weaker social bonds. For entirely distinct reasons, urban areas also lean left politically. The correlation is between psychopathy and urbanism, not psychopathy and liberalism.

If we could show that the psychopaths, not the urban populations where they live, vote for Democrats, we might on to something. Until then, I’m just playfully engaging in the same kind of nonsense as social scientists who purport to show that liberals are smarter, better informed or otherwise more virtuous than conservatives.

A Trump-Stewart Republican Party?

Map credit: Virginia Public Access Project

What do we make of Corey Stewart’s nomination as Republican candidate to run against Tim Kaine for the U.S. Senate seat? Does Stewart’s narrow victory portend a reshaping of the Republican Party of Virginia along more populist, Trumpian lines?

I think a fundamental political realignment could be occurring, but the outcome hinges on events yet to unfold. A lot will depend on what happens to President Trump. If his administration collapses in scandal, as it very well could, so does the populist movement within the Virginia GOP. If, on the other hand, Trump is vindicated in the “Russia collusion” concoction, if the machinations of the Deep State are revealed for all to see (see the release today of the OIG report), and if the economy continues to boom, many people will forgive his character flaws and rhetorical abominations, and Trumpism could very well take lasting root in the party of Lincoln, McKinley and Reagan.

The prospect of a realignment also depends upon how successful Stewart will be in what he promises to be a “vicious campaign” against Kaine, who, whatever one thinks of his politics and his off-putting performance during 2016’s vice presidential debate, is widely regarded as a likable person and the antithesis of vicious. It was one thing for Trump to run a nasty campaign against Hillary Clinton, who had more baggage than Kim Kardashian on a trip to Cannes, and quite another to run one against Mr. Clean. I further question whether Virginia voters, after two years of watching the politics of personal destruction in Washington, D.C., have an appetite for more of the same closer to home, so I am skeptical that Stewart’s pledged scorched-earth campaign will resonate. Indeed, I expect that it will fail spectacularly, in which case Stewart will be repudiated and the GOP could become safe once again for moderates and libertarians.

But my opinion may not count for much. I’m an educated suburbanite, and Stewart isn’t appealing to people like me. He’s hoping to mobilize the forgotten men and women of the white working class and middle class — those who feel alienated from elitist culture and the structures of power.

There may have been enough such voters to capture a GOP nomination, but are there enough to win a statewide U.S. Senate campaign? Stewart won only 45% of the Republican vote in a relatively low turnout primary. If he can unite the party, he has a remote chance of winning the election. If he can’t, he has zero chance. He drew disproportionate strength from the predominantly white localities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, moderate support in Northern Virginia and the southern Piedmont industrial quadrangle (Roanoke, Lynchburg, Danville, Martinsville), but little anywhere else.

Here’s his problem. While nearly all Republicans and many independents recoil from the Democratic Party’s identity politics, they are divided about how to respond. Stewart answers the rhetoric of minority grievance and resentment with the rhetoric of white grievance and resentment. In a demographically diverse state like Virginia, that’s a losing proposition. Nick Freitas and E.W. Jackson, Stewart’s primary opponents, staked out more inclusive positions of opportunity for all. That’s a fundamental philosophical dividing line.

In the current political environment, I see three big buckets of voters — (1) those who hew to the Democratic tribe emphasizing grievances based on color, gender and sexual orientation, (2) those who hew to the Trump-Republican tribe emphasizing white working/middle-class grievances, and (3) those who eschew tribal identities altogether and see people as individuals with cross-cutting identities and priorities. The third group, I would suggest, overlaps significantly with a voting bloc I have referred to in the past as “natural libertarians” with a tolerant live-and-let-live philosophy — and that includes many Republicans who didn’t vote for Stewart.

The logical home of the natural libertarians, I would suggest, is within the Libertarian Party — if only the LP could broaden its appeal beyond its core base of intellectual purists by finding a large demographic constituency. In case you missed it, the LP has fielded a U.S. Senate candidate, Matt Waters. With a platform that includes ending the federal income tax, however, it’s hard to imagine voters taking him seriously.

Conservative Values + Money + Authenticity

Jay Katzen in 2013

Thirty years ago the Republican Party threw in the towel and nominated a candidate who had no chance to beat Charles Robb for the U.S. Senate and really no chance of giving Robb a semblance of a race.  The same thing probably happens again Tuesday, especially if the predictions of a Corey Stewart victory in the primary prove correct.  Nobody, including Tim Kaine, should have a free ride to the U.S. Senate and giving him one is embarrassing for the GOP.

Bart Hinkle at the Richmond Times-Dispatch has distilled my thoughts better than I could.  If you want to read him and ignore my ramble I won’t complain. I do have a couple of points to add.

Stewart’s showing in the 2017 gubernatorial primary provides a fair basis for expecting to see him on this November’s ballot, especially since Ed Gillespie went on to lose in November 2017.  Stewart’s claim that he should have been the nominee and would have won echoes complaints I heard all the way back in 1985. When that year’s GOP ticket for statewide office went 0-3, the chorus went up that the ticket was insufficiently conservative.  That’s the standard excuse for an abysmal campaign or a weak candidate.

Stewart on the ballot last year would have added five points to Governor Ralph Northam’s win and might have given Democrats clear control of the House of Delegates. This year the question is what he does to the House of Representatives candidates in a couple of crucial Virginia districts.

Stewart’s recent attacks on Delegate Nick Freitas have me questioning the conventional wisdom about Stewart’s lead, but Freitas’ obvious lack of resources in the primary indicates he will have an equally hard time raising money for November.  Money is the key.

In 2001 another very conservative Northern Virginia state legislator, Jay Katzen of Fauquier County, came very close to ending Tim Kaine’s career at the rank of mayor, losing an election Larry Sabato called “a squeaker.”  One medium television buy in Northern Virginia, cable even, might have tipped it for Katzen.  The message I would have recommended would highlight his connection to Northern Virginia, trying to flip some votes with a regional pitch. Disclaimer:  I was involved on a volunteer basis with Katzen, my last real foray into an election.

Imagine how different Virginia would be today if Katzen had won (or Mark Early for that matter – another story). But the conventional wisdom then was that Katzen could not win and the money never appeared. Nobody could ask for a more conservative nominee, but it didn’t matter. He was eventually outspent almost 2-1, a deficit the GOP can only dream about this year no matter who is the nominee.

The other key to that campaign was an inaccurate claim by Katzen that as mayor of Richmond Kaine had taken actions hostile to the Boy Scouts. It wasn’t true and Katzen stopped saying it – but in the final days Kaine’s camp brought it back as a main theme and made Katzen pay a price for his earlier misstatement, with a friendly media chorus backing him up. Katzen lacked the money to counter-punch. Yet it was still a close race largely because the underlying message about Kaine being liberal did resonate and Kaine’s totals substantially trailed Mark Warner’s at the top of his ticket, especially in rural areas.

Accusing your opponent of denying the Boy Scouts the use of a public facility (I think that was the issue) is incredibly tame by today’s standards, but those were simpler times. People frowned on candidates who made up or stretched facts, even when (as Katzen did) they admitted the error. Now telling true believer supporters what they want to hear with zero regard for evidence or truth or civility is the common currency for both parties. Every issue is a shibboleth; any doctrinal variation a sin.

Freitas the former Green Beret reminds me of Katzen, a career foreign service officer who went on after losing to a leadership role in the Peace Corps. If you saw Jay driving across the state in his beaten-up sedan (today it would be a pick-up) you’d never imagine him going toe-to-toe with Nikolai Ceausescu, but he had a real-deal diplomatic career. Authenticity matters.

Normally that would include Stewart with his legal career and long local government service, as well, but he has buried that advantage under Trump-style invective, rabid anti-immigrant nativism and a 100-year-time warp back to the Lost Cause, a Minnesotan waving the Stars and Bars. Inauthenticity matters.

I hate to just dismiss E.W. Jackson but he had his statewide opportunity in 2013 and lost. Some Republicans continue to believe that if they nominate black candidates they can cut into racial pattern voting, but if it didn’t work with George H. W. Bush on the ballot (the aforementioned 1988) it sure won’t work with Trump in the White House.

Come October all Stewart and Kaine would be talking about is Trump and General Lee. Freitas conceivably would have a chance to force Kaine to discuss and defend his positions and votes. First we have to see if he gets a chance to try.

Taxes, Data Centers, and Republican Party Politics

Corey Stewart

Data centers account for 92% of all new capital investment in Prince William County between 2012 and 2017. Now Corey Stewart, chairman of the Board of Supervisors and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, wants to raise taxes on them.

Stewart, who is running as a Donald Trump-style populist, proposes to use the $21 million in additional taxes to slash the county’s real estate tax rate. It’s about time, he says, that data centers pay their fair share of taxes, reports Inside Nova.

“The big data center companies in Prince William County are some of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world,” Stewart said. “And I think people are concerned about data centers because these are big, ugly buildings that employ very few people, push up the cost of commercial land and drive the need for even more transmission lines in the county. We’re giving them a tax break, and that’s not right.”

Data centers used for cloud storage constitute one of the biggest bright spots in Virginia’s economic development efforts as the state struggles to diversify its economy from overreliance on the federal government. Loudoun and Prince William Counties have benefited from their proximity to the surfeit of high-capacity fiber-optic cable in Northern Virginia to attract billions of dollars in data-center investment. Other localities such as Virginia Beach and Henrico County have begun competing for the business by reducing tax rates on computers and peripherals. Even with the lower rates, data centers yield enough in local tax revenues that localities regard them as huge positives for the tax base.

In Prince William, the electricity-hungry data centers have become embroiled in a related issue of how to supply them with electric power. In a bitterly contested case, Dominion Energy has been trying to get approval to build a transmissions line through western Prince William County not only to serve a growing population but to deliver power to an Amazon Web Service data center in the Haymarket area.

According to Inside NoVa, Stewart argues that a higher tax won’t make existing data centers leave. The owners have already spent so much money to build the facilities and install the servers and other equipment that they would not shut them down.

Needless to say, the Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) and its business allies oppose the tax, noting that raising the tariff will discourage future investment by cloud providers. Josh Levi, NVTC’s vice president for policy, says that some data centers fall into the category of “colocation centers” where the owner rents out server space to smaller businesses. If Prince William raised its tax rate, these colocation centers would have to pass on the new cost to their customers and potentially scare away some away. “It’s about dollars and cents, not emotions, for these companies,” Levi said.

Stewart responds that even with the tax increase, Prince William’s computer equipment rate still would be lower than that of Loudoun County, which has seen no diminution of interest by data centers. Cloud providers, he says, are still “pounding on their door.”

It will be interesting to see how Stewart’s tax-hike proposal plays out in the Republican senatorial nominating contest. Traditionally, Republicans could be counted on to take a pro-business, anti-tax stance. But Stewart is inveighing against a group of companies that are taking a beating in the public perception, especially among political conservatives.

Facebook has been roundly criticized from the left for being insufficiently vigilant in protecting the privacy of its users from misuse by Cambridge Analytica, an English data mining company affiliated with conservative figures and the Trump campaign. But conservatives have retorted that Facebook shared far more user data with the Obama campaign. A populist wave building within conservative media contends that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other West Coast tech giants, increasingly politically correct, are suppressing conservative voices on social media. Likewise, President Trump has singled out Amazon for allegedly not paying its fair share of sales taxes. If the revolt against the tech giants continues to build, then Stewart’s tax gambit could play very well in the Republican base.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party both represent coalitions of diverse groups and interests. Increasingly, the Democrats appear to be divided between the leftist “Bernie bro” faction and the establishment Hillary faction. Similarly, Republicans are divided between a populist Trump-loving faction and an establishment faction repelled by Trump’s careless, populist rhetoric.

Those divides are reflected in Virginia politics. Virginia Democrats faced a choice between the establishment candidate Ralph Northam and the Bernie-bro candidate, Tom Perriello in the nomination for governor last year. Having won both the nomination and the election, Northam appears to be in a position to keep the party unified… at least for now. While Republicans also selected an establishment candidate to run for governor, Ed Gillespie, he lost handily, creating a big opening for a Trump-style populist like Stewart. While I question his policy proposal to increase taxes on data centers, I suspect that Stewart’s gambit might be good politics — good enough, at least, to win the nomination.

As the dominant political parties schism, I can’t help but think there is an opportunity for a fiscally conservative, market-oriented, socially moderate and racially/ethnically inclusive party like the Libertarians. Libertarians have yet to identify a demographic constituency upon which to build a political base. But if they find just one leader who can crack that nut, politics in Virginia and the nation are ready to crystallize into a very different form.

Yes, Virginia, There Still Is a Libertarian Party

And in other news largely ignored by Virginia media over the weekend… The Libertarian Party of Virginia nominated Matt Waters, an Alexandria fund-raising consultant, as its candidate for U.S. Senate. Waters will run against Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and whoever wins the Republican Party free-for-all.

In his speech to LPVA delegates, Waters said his biggest concern is the unsustainable national debt. He characterized the $21 trillion debt as the United States’ biggest national security threat, greater than ISIS or China, and he called for an end to the failed war on drugs, the war on terror, and the war on poverty.

Vowing to campaign under the Virginia flag, the motto of which is, “Thus always to tyrants,” Waters said:

My campaign will call fellow Virginians to remember who we are, and why we fight. The tyrant today is not the king of England. It is our $21 trillion debt. The tyrant is a massive welfare-warfare state funded by the Federal Reserve that is completely unaccountable, unauditable, and 100 percent  responsible for killing the value of every single dollar we earn in this room. The tyrant is invasive. The tyrant is corrupt. The tyrant is bankrupting this country. … The tyrant invades pulpits, businesses, families, laptops, and smart phones.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I say it’s time to crush the tyrant and restore our liberty now.

Waters’ immediate challenge is collecting 10,000 signatures of registered voters, always a big hurdle for third-party candidates. Beyond that, he faces the perennial Libertarian Party obstacle of gaining media recognition. Libertarians’ traditionally low vote percentages make it difficult for candidates to get reporters to take them seriously.

One outside factor might help Waters. The Republican Party of Virginia seems to be in the process of imploding. Mini-Trump candidate Corey Stewart seems best positioned to capture the Republican party nomination, although his victory is far from certain given the number of other candidates also vying for the honor. If Stewart is nominated, he is so polarizing that he will drive many mainstream Republicans out of the party. While Kaine is widely regarded as a genuinely decent guy, he is a cog in a Democratic Party machine that is tilting farther Left every day. Homeless Republicans may well seek refuge with the Libertarian Party.

Make No Mistake, Dems Oppose the Tax Cuts

John Whitbeck

by John Whitbeck

I read the guest piece from Alfredo Ortiz this week (“Comstock Supports the Tax Cuts. Do Her Democratic Foes?“) with a bit of a smile. Republicans are pleased to be the driving force behind tax cuts in America. While Mr. Ortiz might be uncertain about where Democrats in the 10th District stand, those of us who have spent any time around this far left crowd are not.

There is no better example than the Democratic forum in Winchester earlier this month. The candidates were near unanimous in their view that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the single worst piece of legislation to come out of  the Federal government since the Alien and Sedition Acts.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg, made her position absolutely clear: “I think the first thing we should do is try to roll back the tax cuts,” she said. “I am loathe to cut spending.”

Alison Friedman didn’t mince words either, saying that “Congress must address the abomination that is this tax bill.”

Lindsay Davis Stover said the tax cuts — which have already seen Virginians taking home bigger paychecks — were actually a “tax increase.”

Deep Sran went even further: “Everything that is wrong is in this one piece of legislation,” he said.

Make no mistake: if any of these people are sent to Washington, D.C., they’re an absolute lock to vote for Nancy Tax-Cuts-Are-Armageddon Pelosi to be Speaker, and a lock to vote to repeal tax relief.

Regardless of who wins the primary in the 10th District, it will be interesting to see how quickly the nominee changes his or her tune. Democrat rhetoric on taxes has run face-first into the buzz saw of reality.

People all over Virginia who were told their taxes were going up are getting bigger paychecks, and voters who were told they sky would fall are now seeing higher wages, bonuses, and better benefits. Poll after poll shows that early Democrat efforts to paint the law as a tax hike are failing miserably.

Rhetoric aside, Virginians are seeing the truth every time they get a paycheck. Checks are getting bigger, benefits are getting better. Come November, voters will remember who voted for bigger paychecks, and who will vote against them.

John Whitbeck is chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Now They’ve Really Ticked Me Off!

Peter Strzok

Recent news reports have revealed that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, senior FBI employees involved in the bureau’s investigations of the Clinton email scandal and Russia-gate, have made all manner of derogatory comments about President Donald Trump. Their observations aren’t anything worse than what we hear on Cable TV every day, and independent prosecutor Robert Muller removed them from his probe when he discovered their  bias, so I haven’t gotten too worked up about their indiscretions.

But when they knocked Loudoun County, they really raised my hackles. Strzok texted Page, a senior FBI attorney with whom he was having an affair, after news that Jill McCabe, wife of deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, had lost her race to conservative Richard Black. The outcome of the race was “disappointing,” he said, adding that Loudoun County is “still largely ignorant hillbillys.”

Two comments.

First, Mr. Strzok, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, Loudoun County has the 18th highest percentage of population (25 or older) with a graduate or professional degree, and the 6th highest level with a Bachelor’s degree, of any county in the country.

Second, you misspelled “hillbillies.” You might want to think about that before you call anyone else ignorant.

Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.

We Can Disagree, But Let’s Do So Civilly

These are remarks made by Cliff Hyra, Libertarian Party candidate in the recent gubernatorial election, on the need for civil discourse in Virginia and the United States at the Big Bacon Fry two weeks ago. I’ll have more to say in future posts about the excellent discussion we had there and initiatives that could arise from it. — JAB.

Politics has changed. Americans have become more extreme in their positions, have much more negative views of people who disagree with them, and are less willing to compromise. About one third of Democrats and Republicans now see the other party not just in an unfavorable light, but as a fundamental threat to the nation’s well-being. Our relationships and methods of communication are changing, with the Internet replacing face-to-face communication and allowing us to choose our own sources of information and our peers.

In turn, the idea of civility in politics seems to have slowly gone by the wayside. Open hostility and demonization are common-place. Violence regularly erupts at political rallies. The differences between Republicans and Democrats, not just in politics but in daily life, are increasing dramatically. If the trend continues, rising political violence seems all too possible. Yet there seem to be no incentives favoring a return to civility. Is there anything we can do to help turn things around?

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. That was not so much a strategic decision for me, as simply something that was very important to me personally.  Respect for others — even, and especially, people who I disagree with and think are making the wrong choices — is the basis for my political philosophy and a guiding principal for my personal behavior. And as a third party guy, I don’t have luxury of being able to create bubble of like-minded folks and demonize everyone outside of it, or I would be living in a very small bubble indeed.

For me, recent changes in political discourse have been a huge personal loss. As someone with an interest in policy who cares mostly about results and not partisanship, I find it increasingly difficult to talk to anyone about anything. I sometimes feel accosted on all sides by extremist political rhetoric. In my campaign, I did not view the other candidates as adversaries, but as collaborators in the political process, by which Virginians try to discover and arrive at the best policy solutions for the future. Meanwhile, I can hardly stand to log into Facebook because of the bitterness and contempt being exhibited there.

One of the things that was interesting to me was the stark dichotomy between what I saw online, and what I experienced on the campaign trail, face-to-face with voters. I fully expected strident polemics and harsh criticism, and on the Internet I received it in spades. But person-to-person, interactions were much more civil, much more enjoyable, much more cooperative. Even those who strongly disagreed with me were able to be polite and have a reasoned conversation.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, not just to talk to supporters, but to journalists and to everyday people on the street. It was a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to see places in Virginia I had never seen before, to meet people with lives different from my own and learn about them and make a connection. Humans are evolved to cooperate with each other in person, where the costs and benefits of our interactions are immediate and unavoidable. In person, people were willing to make concessions and consider new ideas, and many expressed a strong distaste for the tone of modern politics. It makes me wonder how much of the lack of civility is directly attributable to the rise of the Internet as a means of communication. So, I don’t think that people have changed for the worse in some fundamental way, and that gives me hope that things can improve.

And things need to improve, if we are going to avoid further political violence, let alone address some of the challenges we face today that require collaboration, cooperation, and compromise. But politicians and political parties are fundamentally unsuited to change themselves. Politicians and political parties will inherently, over time, come to be dominated by whatever strategies are effective in winning elections. And we know that the electorate as a whole has become very highly polarized, and even more so among those most likely to vote and make political donations, among whom the number of extreme liberals has quintupled over the last twenty years, and the number of extreme conservatives has tripled over the last ten years.

And now we see the result of that change, as even staid, relatively mainstream candidates like Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie resort to accusing each other of sympathy for MS-13, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. As a candidate, I tried to set an example of civility and respect. And I encouraged the voters to hold the candidates accountable for their rhetoric, and to vote strategically against the lack of civility and disrespect in modern politics.

I think if there is going to be change, it needs to be a non-partisan approach that goes beyond any immediate political campaign or political battle. So I thank Jim for bringing us together and for stepping up and making an effort to change things, because that is exactly what we need. And I am grateful to be involved, and eager to do what I can to help. And I hope some of you here are as well. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for having me.

Take Back the Discourse — Fight for Civility!

Cliff Hyra. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

This cry for civility could not be more timely given the subject of my previous post: Libertarian Party candidate for governor Cliff Hyra has called upon Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie to halt their vicious attack ads. The statement he released today is worth quoting at length:

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. All Virginians deserve respect, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs- and regardless of their political opinions. I feel strongly that it is a mistake to demonize those who disagree with you. Our political opponents are not demons- they are our brothers and our sisters, and they bleed like we bleed, and they want, at a high level, most of the same things that we want.

I wish that the other candidates felt the same way. I have watched with growing dismay over the last weeks as initial civility has given way to wild-eyed accusations and divisive rhetoric.

What is politics coming to, what is our society coming to, when two candidates for state-wide office spend millions of dollars on ads accusing their opponent of sympathizing with violent street gangs, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and of harboring supporters who want to run over our children with trucks. I cannot begin to describe my disappointment. I fear for the future of our Commonwealth and of our nation, when even the most staid candidates feel they have to descend to this level of discourse to win an election, and are willing to do so.

My family was talking in general terms about the rhetoric we had been hearing, when my seven-year-old daughter asked me, “Do grown-ups really fight like that?” and I said “Well, these two do” and she said “They’re acting like children!” and I said “You’re right.” It’s unbelievable to me that I have to be the grown-up in the room, because these 60-year old men, these establishment politicians, a sitting lieutenant governor and former chairman of the RNC, apparently think that the best strategy for getting elected to the highest office in the state is name-calling. I feel like telling them ‘Don’t make me turn this car around!’

Virginia’s voters want to make their decisions based on the issues. When I talk to Virginians all over the state, they are disgusted by the ads they see. What is important to them is the economy, education, healthcare, criminal justice. Not monuments. Not Enron.

I would add only this: Civility is not just for elections. It’s for all public discourse. Sometimes the polite people of the world have to stand up and say, “Gosh darn it, we’re not going to take this anymore!”