Exceptional for What: How North Carolina Has Lost Its Reputation as “A Beacon in the South”

A common trope in history is that the further north you are, the more civilized you are. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, each Slavic country considered itself to be the last bastion of European civilization: Slovenia considered Croatia to be uncivilized, Croatia looked down on Serbia, Serbia regarded Bosnia and Herzegovina as barbaric moors, and Bosnia and Herzegovina saw themselves as Europe’s final frontier. In the 19th-century United States, the dominant Anglo-Saxons (from England) excluded and marginalized the Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jews. In comparison, at least those marginalized groups from Europe’s central regions and southern shores were free; if you had roots in the land mass directly south of Italy (commonly referred to as Africa), then you were viewed as subhuman. Looking past the heavy racial overtones of these examples, the underlying, subconscious belief is that civilization starts in the North and trickles down.

A similar tenet holds true in North Carolinian political discourse. North Carolina has historically considered itself a unique bright spot in an otherwise racist, backwards South. Governor Roy Cooper recognizes that his state is “known traditionally as a forward-thinking Southern state, a beacon in the South.” In a region plagued by a history of racist governors and one-party dominance, North Carolina has supposedly been a socially progressive oasis of competitive two-party democracy. While the state always trended as more conservative than the rest of the country (as is typical of Southern states), there has always been a strong liberal presence and relatively competitive elections. The politicians who have thrived the most have been liberal conservatives or conservative liberals: the two most influential governors In North Carolina history have been Charles Aycock (1901-05) ––a racist conservative who pushed for increased education spending––and Terry Sanford (1961-65) ––a liberal anti-segregationist who supported regressive, anti-populist food taxes meant to catch “everybody” (i.e. poor minorities)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, North Carolina continued to boast an impressive competitive streak. Between 1994 and 2010, Democrats controlled the governorship and both state houses. However, the state voted Republican in nine of the last ten presidential elections. In a region that has been solidly conservative for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolina has unique, admirable party competition. North Carolina prides itself on its historic political superiority and stability compared to its southern neighbors, but recent trends definitively erode this sentiment.

While the notion of “North Carolina exceptionalism” has historical credence, it has all but lost its significance today. While North Carolina used to be known as a state of moderation, it is now dominated by Republicans at both the state and national level, and some of the dominant party’s actions in recent years have been shockingly regressive. Intense gerrymandering, a poll tax ruled unconstitutional, a bill limiting transgender rights, consolidation of power, extreme partisanship, more intense gerrymandering and another poll tax proposal are some of the highlights of the past eight years since Republicans secured a majority––and then a supermajority––in the General Assembly.

After the 2010 census, the legislature (which had recently been won by Republicans) was tasked with redistricting the state. Relying on new racial demographics from the census, they effectively drew districts along racial lines to consolidate the black vote (which skewed heavily Democrat) into as few districts as possible. In the 2012 election, Republicans won just 49% of the combined votes for US House of Representatives candidates but secured nine of the thirteen available seats. Four years later, a federal court struck down the racially-gerrymandered map.

In response, the General Assembly published a new district map, free of racial gerrymandering. Representative David Lewis, chair of the state House redistricting committee, boasted of the new plan: “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law. I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” Alas, the judges were not persuaded. Earlier this year, a federal court struck down that plan, too, arguing that it violated the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although these plans have now been ruled unconstitutional, they succeeded in securing a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly while they were in use.

The reputation of North Carolina as a racially and socially progressive Southern state has not stood the test of time, either. Unless, of course, you consider a Republican-passed voter-ID law that “target[s] African-American voters with almost surgical precision” as racially progressive. A federal court struck down that 2013 law, arguing that the targeted disenfranchisement of an entire racial group is actually racially regressive. But the Republican-dominated legislature was not deterred. If you look at the ballot for the 2018 election, there is a proposed amendment that would require voters to present a photo ID at the polling station to be eligible to vote. Seems reasonable. The 2016 HB2 Bill––which forces transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth gender––speaks for itself as a testament to the death of North Carolina’s progressive reputation.

Any discussion of the deterioration of North Carolina politics would be incomplete without mention of the highly contentious 2016 gubernatorial election, in which Democrat Roy Cooper defeated the incumbent Republican, Pat McRory. In the interim period between the Republican defeat and Cooper’s inauguration, the General Assembly moved swiftly to curtail many of the Governor’s powers. In response, Cooper sued the General Assembly to get those powers back. It is safe to say that bipartisanship did not prevail. Instead, the North Carolina we see today is highly polarized, with the state government doing nothing but worsen relations between parties.

North Carolina has fallen far from its longstanding reputation as a “beacon in the South.” So far has this reputation fallen, in fact, that the Electoral Integrity Project gave North Carolina an overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election, placing it “alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.” Its score on integrity of voting district boundaries was a mere 7/100––the worst score ever recorded by the EIP. North Carolina’s rightward lurch has diminished a century of reputation-building to the point that it is more likely to considered “exceptional” for its broken politics and backwards social legislation than for its stable democracy and progressive leadership.



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