A popular trope in the news these days is the idea of polarization: conservative and liberal; rural and urban; rich and poor. Writers and opinion leaders tell us that our communities have been irrevocably divided over politics, community and income.
To a degree this is true. There are, however, very strong external forces shaping our divide besides money and politics. I’m talking about special interest groups.
Elected officials rely on money, outreach, and endorsements to be successful. All three of these elements can be pushed across the finish line by special interests. And let me tell you, they have zero interest in the candidate’s nuanced and informed opinion. The special interests – powerful PACs, non-profits, unions and the like want lockstep compliance.
When I was a legislative candidate in 2018, I was inundated with special interest questionnaires starting in March. The vast majority of them were so slanted, I ignored them. I opted to complete three of them. I’m a Catholic Republican business owner who owns a firearm and is head over heels in love with my pets, so I figured NRA, Animal Welfare and Right to Life were no brainers.
It was so much more complicated and each one held a surprise. First off, the NRA questionnaire was the least controversial of all. It was focused on very real issues in our state – particularly red flag laws – and offered room for individual opinion. I had no personal issues completing it and received the NRA’s highest rating for a candidate.
Animal Welfare was far more extreme in its stance then I expected. But I was able align easily with most of their views – trapping, penalties for animal cruelty and the like. Because I do support recreational hunting (although not a hunter myself), I was not able to attain an A+, 100% rating from Animal Welfare. But they sent me a nice letter explaining that they respected my views and but couldn’t endorse me unless my opponent got a lower “score.”
I couldn’t complete or return Right to Life’s questionnaire. I was fine with all the policy positions except the last: I had to confirm by my signature that I would support with all of my resources and ability any legislation Right to Life proposed, no matter what it was. I won’t give any special interest that power over me. So I just didn’t send it in. Not long after, the state director saw me at an event and asked me why I hadn’t sent it in. I told her my reason. She was shocked that there might ever be a RTL position I wouldn’t support. I was shocked she wanted me to sign such a pledge.
There have been a few stalwart politicians who are far more scrupulous than I with regard to special interests: not only do they not seek special interest endorsements, they refuse corporate or special interest money. As far as I know, none of them remain in office.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives north of I-40 where she and her family run two head of dog, and one of cat.