When Republicans took over state government in North Carolina in 2012, progressives spent the first few of months of 2013 stunned at the breadth of the GOP changes. The Republican legislature and the compliant Pat McCrory quickly began dismantling Democratic policies and shifting the state hard to the right. They rejected Medicaid expansion, passed sweeping voter suppression laws, limited access to abortions, shifted the tax burden to the poor and middle class, cut funding to public schools and universities, and on and on. Democrats initially seemed too stunned and disorganized to respond. Even some Republicans were shocked at the speed with which the GOP legislature moved.
Then, in the spring, Democrats started fighting back. Moral Monday protests grabbed the attention of the state and national media. Progressives found a way to vent their anger. They also thought they were building a broad-based movement that would capture the imagination of people of all backgrounds and sweep the GOP out of power in midterm elections. They were, of course, wrong.
The biggest error, though, was in the expectations, not necessarily tactics. The protests awoke progressives across the state. Organizations trained campaign workers and built their own third-party programs to compete with those run by the Koch brothers’ and Pope networks. In 2014, Democrats didn’t take back either House of the legislature but they did pick up state House seats and provided a seawall against the GOP wave that hit the rest of the country.
The fight in North Carolina and across the country will much harder and longer than progressives imagined in 2013. Nationally, Democrats and progressives should take note of what has happened here. Prepare for the worst. Paul Ryan and Mike Pence have indicated they’ll push a sweeping legislative agenda similar in scope to what the GOP did in North Carolina.
Make no mistake. Their goal is to dismantle the social safety net built by the Great Society and New Deal. They’ll phase out Medicare and probably limit Social Security benefits. They’ll undo environmental protections and offer massive tax cuts to the rich. They’ll keep their base happy with restrictions on abortions, limits to LGBT rights, and dismantling what few gun restrictions are left. They will ignore the rise of white nationalism and call the press the biased when they’re called out for it.
And they’ll try bait the left. They want to see massive and ongoing protests on the Mall and around the country. Protests may engage activists on the left but they also fuel activists on right. Progressives should target their outrage instead of focusing on general anger at Trump or the GOP. Use protests to galvanize opposition to specific policies or legislation.
In North Carolina, Democrats are learning. They elected a governor and attorney general in 2016 because they turned HB2 into an economic argument instead of a social one. Republican Governor Pat McCrory and AG candidate Buck Newton tried to make the HB2 about protecting women and children but Roy Cooper and Josh Stein kept it about scaring off businesses. Voters, regardless of their position on transgender people and bathrooms, knew it was a flawed bill that harmed the state. Economics trumps social issues when it comes to elections.
After 2016, Democrats should take away two central lessons. First, they need an overarching economic message that defines who they are and what unifies them. Right now, the party appears to be a disparate collection of interest groups that each has its own litmus test. Second, they need to spend far more on organizing and far less on TV advertising. In both 2014 and 2016 the airwaves were saturated but the neighborhoods were not. Democrats need a permanent ground program, not a biennial field operation.
Democrats in North Carolina didn’t get it completely right in 2016, but they were better off than most similar swing states. They should learn from their experience this year and get better in two years. Nationally, Democrats should be looking at North Carolina for lessons on how to be an opposition party for the long haul. They should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Thomas Mills is the Founder and Publisher of PoliticsNC.com