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Only half the story

August 7, 2013

Recent reports of North Carolina’s demise are greatly exaggerated


For caring and thoughtful North Carolinians, the past few weeks – months really – have been a period for both tears and laughter.


The tears of course, are for the myriad wounds – both real and symbolic – inflicted upon the Old North State by the reactionary leaders who currently hold the reins of power in Raleigh. Whether in response to the assaults on public and higher education, tax fairness, reproductive freedom, the right to vote, the right to be free from gun violence or any number of other destructive attacks, the mourning has been plentiful and much-warranted.


And the laughter? Well that, of course, has been mostly in response to the way in which so many of the nation’s most-gifted humorists have seized upon this reactionary slide and subjected it to the laugh-out-loud derision it so richly deserves. Dark and painful as most of the jokes are, it’s therapeutic to hear Bill Maher say things like:


“It’s time for America to get off the sidelines and support a proud people in a region where religious freedom, women’s rights and democracy itself hang in the balance. I’m talking, of course, about North Carolina….North Carolina right now is going ape**** in a way no state ever has. Take every crazy, right-wing idea your angry uncle mumbles at Thanksgiving, turn it into a law and that’s North Carolina today.”


And then there’s The Daily Show where summer host John Oliver, recently explained:


“After a North Carolina legislative session like this, I think the big takeaway here might be: Your move South Carolina. You thought you had ‘craziest Carolina’ all sewn up, didn’t you? With your runaway governor and your rampant [expletive], and it gives me no pleasure in saying this: you may be about to lose the War of Northern Regression.”


And who could forget Stephen Colbert’s hilarious barbs on everything from the passage of Amendment One to the legislative ban on sea-level rise.


Tastes great but less filling


In some ways, of course, all this national attention is welcome for those who oppose the state’s hard, rightward shift. The idea that smart and savvy national media figures at the New York Times, MSNBC, Time and The Nation (among many others) are taking note of and holding recent developments up to national scrutiny is validating in many ways. It’s not unlike those moments during which CNN or the Weather Channel covers a natural disaster in one’s neighborhood. “Thank goodness,” goes the internal thought process, “at least someone’s paying attention. We’re not alone!”


The downside to all of this national attention, however, is that it is, like so many from-a-distance media stories, incomplete. To watch Maher or read Time, you’d think that all hope is lost and that the state has utterly lost its soul. Indeed, the incessant drumbeat of the news reports, commentary and comedy shows seems to have convinced some in the national media to write North Carolina off and permanently consign it to the Old Confederacy bracket along with Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.


This, of course, is hogwash.


The real deal


North Carolina has no more become a permanent right-wing bastion than the country as a whole did when Newt Gingrich ascended to power two decades ago. It’s no more a lost cause than Wake County was three years ago at the height of the “Gang of Five” school board takeover.


The current conservative push in North Carolina isn’t indicative of a long-lasting political tide. Winning half the vote (and in some cases less) but grabbing unfettered power via a combination of big money, outrageous gerrymandering and misleading promises of moderation isn’t a wave. It’s more like a bit of electoral hocus pocus; a smoke and mirrors coup d’état.


If anything, the current period feels less like a permanent wave and more like the last bright blast of a reactionary movement whose star is about to dim for good. That’s one of the reasons the right was so terribly anxious to ram Amendment One through in 2012; they could see the state’s demographics and attitudes turning against them fast and knew their window of opportunity was closing. That’s one of the same reasons they’ve acted with such demonic fervor this year; they recognize that their only hope is to literally upset the applecart of state and rout their opponents so thoroughly that they’re able to cling to power long enough to transform it into some kind of far right lab experiment.


But this is almost certainly not going to work. Indeed, you can make a strong case that North Carolina is much better-positioned to lead a national progressive political renaissance over the coming years than dozens of other states. Consider the following:


The changing demographics – There simply is no going back to the Old South, mid-20th Century North Carolina. No matter what happens on Jones Street or in the Governor’s mansion, those days are gone.


And neither is this a rustbelt state with a shrinking population of embittered and disaffected inhabitants longing for the glory days and turning to desperate measures and extremist causes. This isn’t Michigan or Kansas. Oh sure, the state has its badly troubled regions. It also has its pockets of kooks and haters, but for the most part, these troubled souls are a scattered and tiny minority.


There’s no getting around the fact that North Carolina could be the seventh largest state in the union in the not-too-distant future– a growing, diverse and increasingly urban state moving onto the world stage. This is not the kind of place that reactionary governments long thrive.


The right’s fundamental weakness –And neither do reactionary governments long thrive where their intellectual and political firepower is so shallow. Formidable as the right might seem right now, the plain truth is that they have no real new ideas and no coherent vision for what they want to build. This weakness is readily evident in the feverish spin that they’ve been attempting to apply to the new laws they passed this session. Lacking a coherent voice to explain and defend their radical policies (Pat McCrory? Thom Tillis? Phil Berger?), the right instead falls back on the bizarre defense that, “hey, we really didn’t do that much at all.”


Take away one man’s campaign money and the think tanks he funds and the whole thing quite likely collapses like a house of cards.


The powerful opposition movement that has arisen – Finally and most importantly, any notion that North Carolinians would meekly knuckle under to the right’s destructive push has been utterly shattered by the power and authority of the only-just-getting-started Moral Mondays movement. Some national pundits may have the mistaken impression that North Carolina is a lost cause, but that’s not what the folks on the ground in other states are saying. They increasingly recognize this as the frontline in a national battle. They’re looking here for leadership and moving quickly to follow the Moral Mondays lead. Just yesterday, the Campaign for America’s Future – a new wave DC-based progressive organization — tabbed Rev. William Barber for a national citizenship award.


Progressive activists, funders and emerging nonprofit groups aren’t writing North Carolina off; they see it is as the place where the important action is and know the enormous national impact that a turnaround here will produce.


Our finest hour?


So, enjoy the comics and feel free to feel bad about the temporary fix North Carolina is in. But don’t mistake the comedic one-liners or the tut-tutting of distant pundits for complete or fully accurate takes on where things really stand. North Carolina may well have suffered a painful and damaging blow, but the reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Our finest hour still lies ahead.


Schofield is the director of research and policy development for NC Policy Watch.