I’m not sure there has ever been a North Carolina election presenting such a gaping mismatch between the character-defining urgency of what is at stake and the tepid, cautious, toe-in-the-water campaigns that seek to decide it. We determine, in 2016, whether or not we will surge to embrace, finally, the most right-wing government in America. We are in a fight for our very decency as a people. But you wouldn’t know it by the rote, quotidian and formulaic efforts of our major candidates.
Statewide, Deborah Ross’ campaign centers on Sen. Richard Burr’s great vice of taking large contributions from the insurance industry and then doing its bidding. That’s lousy, no doubt. But it is also a defect Burr likely shares with the bulk of incumbent national lawmakers, across the various states, from both political parties. And whatever its evil, insurance-purchased corruption doesn’t make its way into the top 10 of Burr’s potent transgressions.
This is the fellow, after all, who pressed hard for NAFTA and CAFTA, literally crushing the middle-income jobs of North Carolina. He then repeatedly voted to cut off unemployment compensation for the Tar Heels he’d thrown out of work. And to top it off, he explained from the well of the Senate that impoverished and burdened children receiving subsidized health care coverage were mere “hogs at the trough.” Apparently poor, young, sick hogs. But hogs nonetheless.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, on the other hand, seems almost to suggest in his commercials that we ought to elect him because his mother was a teacher – and she would expect better from us. He does this as Gov. Pat McCrory finishes out the most destructive North Carolina gubernatorial term in at least 75 years. McCrory may not know what he is doing. I’ll concede that. But the results are the same whether or not he’s oblivious. North Carolina busily becomes Mississippi.
McCrory has refused to accept an almost completely federally-funded expansion of Medicaid. As a result, billions of dollars in national health care funds and tens of thousands of jobs have been turned away. Rural hospitals close, and 463,000 impoverished Tar Heels are denied health care coverage. Over a thousand per year likely die as a result. The governor, simply put, has our blood on his hands. He offers, still, no explanation. That’s because he dares not utter the only accurate one – “a lot of you have to die so I can prove I hate Obama.”
McCrory has also become chief spokesman and architect of what The New York Times calls North Carolina’s “pioneering work in bigotry” – opening new and path-breaking frontiers of invidious discrimination. His tenure has metamorphosed this commonwealth from a modestly progressive, optimistic, technologically advanced and generally admired state into a mocked, shunned, internationally boycotted and near universally despised one. We race backward and to the bottom.
And McCrory’s crew has re-adopted racial suppression as a formal operational component of North Carolina government. With “surgical precision,” they have purposefully burdened black electoral participation, dignity and opportunity. As if existentially unaware of racism’s mark as our most heinous collective sin, Republican leaders seemingly seek to re-litigate the American civil rights era. McCrory’s stand with Wallace, Thurmond and Faubus is unwavering.
We decide, in early November, whether to reject or to endorse government by and for only the white, the wealthy, the straight and the Christian. We determine to either accept or to cast aside our very premise of governance, our foundational commitment to constitutional equity. We vote whether to secure or to discard an historically defining promise of liberty and justice for all.
Maybe stakes so profound are beyond the ken of our modern, poll-driven, consultant-bounded, money-soaked, Madison Avenue-produced, state-wide electoral campaigns. Maybe it is too much to acknowledge that our incumbent office holders literally threaten our character as a people. Maybe our challengers haven’t understood the full measure of our jeopardy. Or maybe they are too polite, or too cautious, or too judicious, to mention it.
But what we face is not just the give and take, the rise and fall, of regular politics. We are, instead, in a fight for our dignity, our honor, our generosity and civic virtue. If our candidates don’t know that, or don’t remember it, or won’t name it, I hope the rest of us will. Whether North Carolina is to be an admirable state or a loathsome one hangs in the balance.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.