What a year it was. Who would have thought the political phenomenon currently upending the Republican presidential primaries would also drive last year’s Chapel Hill Town Council race?
2015 will go down as the year that populism was the predominant political power – nationally and locally.
Populism has cropped up periodically throughout American history, especially when a segment of the electorate believes its concerns aren’t being heard. Candidates, often outsiders, promise to be the “voice of the people,” tapping into the disaffected group’s desire to replace the establishment.
Nationally, a host of candidates are running populist campaigns, Donald Trump most successfully. They are all working to capture the imagination of a subsegment of voters who feel Washington is out of touch and leading the country in the wrong direction.
Locally, a group of citizens became frustrated with a series of Chapel Hill Town Council decisions approving major developments around town. They complained the council hadn’t paid attention to their concerns and was leading the town in the wrong direction. The group formed the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), a populist organization dedicated to replacing the mayor and Town Council, under the motto “Supporting Leaders Who Listen.”
Of course, these populist movements stem from very different perspectives. Angry Republicans believe government itself is a problem, and want it to control less of their lives. In Chapel Hill, CHALT’s disgruntled voters decried giving up control to the private sector and wanted more regulation.
Nonetheless, both nationally and locally, alienation from the status quo spawned classic populist political movements.
CHALT certainly capitalized on its members’ discontent. It supported four new candidates, three of whom had never held office. It set the terms of the debate with smart messaging tapping into Chapel Hill’s traditional fear of change. It was organized, online and on the street. It was also well financed, launching its own political action committee (CHALT PAC) to circumvent Chapel Hill’s campaign funding restrictions.
While CHALT was running its campaign like the best of seasoned politicians, it also benefited from lackluster competition. Incumbents had a hard time articulating their vision in an inspiring way. They didn’t coordinate their efforts. They seemed flat-footed for much of the campaign, and by the time they were roused by surprising polls, they had been forced to play defense.
As a result, come Election Day, CHALT could celebrate quite an achievement. Incumbent mayors and council members rarely lose in Chapel Hill. CHALT, and its disaffected members, now have seats at the table. Their voices will be heard.
Still, despite these advantages, CHALT’s victory wasn’t complete. The candidate most closely identified with the organization lost, as did the incumbent most closely aligned with CHALT’s platform. Conversely, a challenger who was a leader in community planning on a project CHALT opposed was elected, as was an incumbent who unabashedly defended the changes she and the council enacted.
So where does that leave us? 2016 will be a year of repositioning and maneuvering.
CHALT supported candidates, as a minority on the council, will need to persuade others to support their positions. Tone will be key. Will they be compelling and cooperative or uncompromising and divisive?
Meanwhile, the remaining incumbents will be looking out to the 2017 elections. Will they shift toward CHALT positions to inoculate themselves against future populist criticism, or reaffirm the course they have been on?
Either way, 2015 demonstrated that even a minority of eligible voters, energized by populist sentiments, can be a powerful force. CHALT won’t be going away and will be working hard to build on its success. Those with a different vision for Chapel Hill will have to become better organized. They will also need to find a compelling way to promote why their plan will build a better future for the community.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org