Dec 20, 2016 by

Credit Victor Kerlow

Charlotte, N.C. — In recent days, folks from outside North Carolina have been asking me what, exactly, is wrong with my state. After a vicious governor’s race in which the Democrat, Roy Cooper, squeaked past the incumbent Republican, Pat McCrory, the state General Assembly drew up and passed a series of bills that greatly restrict the power of our incoming chief executive — bills that Mr. McCrory has signed.

This is only the latest in a series of fierce political fights in our state. Earlier this year, it was around H.B. 2, the so-called bathroom bill; before that, it was over efforts by state Republicans to restrict voting rights. All of this in a state long regarded as a paragon of Southern moderation.

But rather than being an outlier, North Carolina is the distillation of nationwide trends. Our cities are solidly blue, while our rural regions, which thanks to gerrymandering have an outsize power, are reactionary red, and their representatives are bent on breaking every rule to keep a hold on power.

It wasn’t always this way.

But the state’s political divisions were soon laid bare. In 1984, our state was embroiled in one of the most divisive campaigns for the United States Senate that North Carolinians had ever witnessed, in a battle that pitted Governor Hunt against the incumbent Republican, Jesse Helms. Its brutality shocked the nation and even international observers. Then in 1990, when Helms faced Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte and an African-American, those divisions hardened. The Helms campaign produced the infamous “Hands” ad, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling a job application, a not so subtly racist message about affirmative action “quotas.”

Those elections may have been the beginning of the end of political civility in North Carolina, but they also heralded a new type of electoral politics nationally, one that focused on tearing down one’s opponent in order to win.

Fast forward to 2010, when North Carolina Republicans seized control of the General Assembly, which put them in charge of the House and Senate for the first time since 1870, and the governor’s office in 2012. Since then, there’s been a desperate effort to return the state to its less progressive roots. And that’s being kind.

Though a slight majority of the state clearly supports Democratic leadership and progressive policies, the state’s Republicans, bankrolled by the right-wing businessman Art Pope, have targeted jobless benefits, education and welfare spending, while pushing for redistricting and limits on voting rights to keep them in power. They have operated as thieves in the night, presenting bills crafted in midnight sessions to their Democratic colleagues only a few hours before a vote is to be held.

North Carolina’s 2016 election results demonstrate the rural-urban divide that is emerging across this country. In this campaign season, even Mr. McCrory, the longtime mayor of the largest city in our state — Charlotte — lost the urban vote by wide margins, including by 30 points in Mecklenburg County, where he once served.

That’s not the only national story reflected locally. Over the course of several election cycles, the national Democratic Party seems to have taken North Carolina’s progressiveness for granted. The Democratic National Committee does not have much of a ground game in our state. The fact that Barack Obama won here in 2008, by the slimmest of margins, is more a testament to the strength of his grass-roots campaign. That election should have signaled to the Democratic Party that there was work to be done here. But it didn’t.

Now we find ourselves in a situation that looks akin to the South of the 1890s. Then, it was the Democratic Party that went to work to reverse what little gains Reconstruction had given freedmen. State governments implemented laws to preserve white supremacy, and politically disenfranchised black voters.

Today, North Carolina’s citizens — including an increasingly diverse and growing minority population — are being disenfranchised by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. G.O.P. lawmakers have brazenly dismissed the will of the people in this election and have shown no compunction about curtailing civil liberties. Worst of all, they have passed, and will continue to pass, regressive laws that undermine our democracy, even as they subvert the Constitution they claim to defend.

How and when the state will emerge from the damage being done, we do not know. But all North Carolina citizens, Republican and Democrat — and all Americans — should be concerned.


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