RALEIGH — As I write this, the balloting isn’t yet over in North Carolina. But here’s an election result I can forecast with absolute confidence: most North Carolinians, like most Americans, will be dissatisfied with the outcome.
I don’t just mean that roughly half the voters will end up supporting losing candidates for president, governor, U.S. Senate, and other statewide contests. For months, it has been clear that North Carolina would be a tightly contested battleground. We were also a tightly contested battleground for president, at least, in 2008 and 2012, so this is nothing new.
What really is new — perhaps even unprecedented in American political history — is that both major-party candidates for president have higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings. Outside of hard-core partisans, voters across the ideological spectrum dislike and distrust Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It seems likely the next president will enter the White House cloaked in suspicion and dogged by scandal.
Here in North Carolina, the contest between Richard Burr and Deborah Ross rates as one of the nation’s roughest Senate races, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, with 65 percent of the ads aired attacking the other candidate and only eight percent offering a positive agenda. And either Pat McCrory or Roy Cooper will win one of the most brutal and expensive races for governor in state history. It is the second-most-negative gubernatorial contest this year, according to the Wesleyan dataset, with 59 percent of the ads rated as negative and 19 percent as positive.
I share the concerns of many North Carolinians, again across the spectrum, about how the 2016 cycle has played out. I share their disappointment with the actions of many candidates, party leaders, activists, and media figures. But I haven’t yielded to pessimism.
Indeed, I still see reasons for optimism — about the Tar Heel State, anyway. Look, there’s not much chance of anything good oozing from our toxic-waste dump of a presidential race. But at the state level, the past few months have produced a groundswell of interest in promoting civil dialogue and elevating the standards and practices of competitive politics.
Early this year, a new project called the North Carolina Leadership Forum made its debut. Affiliated with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and encompassing a broad range of current and emerging leaders, NCLF has given liberals, conservatives, centrists, and libertarians a valuable opportunity to develop personal connections, explore complex sets of data and arguments, and better understand how people with good intentions and shared goals can form entirely different opinions about what government should do.
NCLF is funded by the Duke Endowment and two charitable foundations whose grantees usually find themselves diametrically opposed on matters of public policy — the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the John William Pope Foundation, for which I serve as president. Reynolds and Pope are also jointly funding several other projects and initiatives at the moment — including the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership, the news service EducationNC, and the education group BEST NC — and even compared notes recently about disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
These efforts aren’t about trying to converge to some kind of moderate consensus. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. North Carolina is a large and growing state of diverse people and varying viewpoints. As should be obvious by now, I have strong opinions. I like talking about them, trying to persuade others I’m right, and then adjusting my thinking to new information or good arguments as warranted. The goals should be to debate our differences more constructively, seek agreement where possible, and lift the conversation above vicious ridicule and character assassination.
I don’t mean to diminish the coming challenge. The blades of 2016 cut deep wounds. It will take discernment, diplomacy, and diligence to bind them up and begin moving forward. We will stride and we will stumble. But both will be steps in the right direction. That’s what healthy politics looks like. Perhaps North Carolina can model it for a nation yearning for something better.