Last week The News & Observer published my op-ed on the failing grade North Carolina received for our elections and democratic health.
Boy did it touch a nerve.
Hundreds of comments poured in and the article went viral on social media. After thousands of retweets, reaching over 5 million accounts, I stopped checking the stats. There were features in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, Huffington Post, Politico, even PerezHilton.com. Paul Krugman, Howard Dean and Fareed Zakaria tweeted it out to their millions of followers. The story ran around the world. On Christmas Eve the op-ed became the lead on the Twitter home page.
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. North Carolinians are exasperated as they watch the erosion of their democracy. We yearn for real change but feel impotent in the face of frozen power. More than ever, people are hungry for ideas on how to reverse the decline.
There were thousands of comments online and I received over 100 emails directly. The vast majority agreed that our democracy was in trouble and thanked me for seeking to marshal evidence rather than use bluster. However, a small minority were very angry. There were online threats and abuse on my voicemail. I was told to go ‘back to Africa’ (I am not from Africa), I was told I was worse than cancer, feces, a fraud, a moron and corrupter of young people.
A few respondents wrote, “America is a republic, not a democracy.” A ha! They gloated, end of argument: We need not abide by democratic principles because we are a constitutional republic. Coincidentally, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest shouted this at a protester at the General Assembly on December 15. I am not sure if I am in awe of the chutzpah, or appalled at the level of ignorance. Saying the USA is not a democracy because it is a republic is like saying, ‘that’s not a dog, it’s a Labrador Retriever.’ About two thirds of the world’s full democracies are republics, the rest constitutional monarchies. They are all representative democracies, not direct ones – even accepting that the Swiss like a referendum every now and then.
The second criticism was, ‘two wrongs make a right.’ Democrats had abused their power when in office so it’s fair that Republicans abuse power now. It’s certainly true that historically both Democrats and Republicans have been culpable in democracy’s decline but it is also true that in North Carolina recently the Republicans have been most egregious in their contempt for democratic principles. The fact that both parties manipulate elections for partisan gain and wring as much power as they can from their turns in office has caused our institutions to atrophy and ugly polarization to seize the public sphere.
What we need is a Tar Heel Spring to restore the pride of North Carolina. Not merely a reawakening of our democracy but an invigoration of our self-confidence as active citizens shaping the state that we love.
The suffix ‘-Spring’ may not seem very helpful or hopeful. The Arab Spring looks like a colossal failure five years on. The only country that has significantly democratized is Tunisia. The Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks. But the term comes from the 1848 ‘Springtime of the Peoples.’ The moment when democracy took told in Western Europe. Even that political earthquake looked to have failed initially. A decade after the uprisings the old order appeared to still be in power in most places. But nothing would ever be the same again. The masses may have lost their first battle but they could never be taken for granted again. A confidence and self-awareness had been discovered. The spirit of democracy had been sparked and the flames would ultimately catch, even if they struggled at the beginning.
A democratic reawakening in North Carolina would reimagine our political institutions. Whole scale change feels overwhelming and impossible, and probably is, but there are things we could do that would start the reawakening. Let us start by focusing on one big thing. Democratic election districts are the key that will unlock all the other steps. Non-partisan redistricting is not a new idea. Tom Ross and Common Cause, Senator Jeff Jackson and the Moral Monday movement have all called for redistricting reform. Prominent Republicans, Democrats and business leaders agree. There is even the core of a bipartisan movement in the General Assembly. But frankly the science of drawing lines on a map has never ignited reformist passions. Now it must – its time has come.
Competitive districts would advantage moderate candidates, with constructive policies and give incentives to listen to the voters rather than party bosses and big money donors. Real competition would enhance accountability. It would also make extremist legislation like HB2 far less likely to bring shame to our state.
Next November support candidates, Republican and Democrat, who commit themselves to supporting an independent non-partisan districting commission. Ask local towns, cities and counties to pass resolutions in favor of non-partisan districting. Discuss with your friends and neighbors why this is important.
Our system is broken – we have to pull together to fix it. Let us reawaken the best of the Tar Heel state.
Andrew Reynolds is a Professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.