In the weeks and months since last year’s election, Democrats in North Carolina and across the country have grappled with two simple, but enormously consequential, questions: What do we stand for and what do we do next?
While last November had its share of successes for North Carolina Democrats, particularly the election of Roy Cooper as governor, it also laid bare the challenges facing the party as it tries to regain footing in the Trump era.
Everywhere I go, I get asked the same question: What can we do? While the grassroots energy we have is undeniable, it’s also clear that without a compelling vision to unite around, and a structure to channel this enthusiasm, the party will be doomed to the same results in elections to come.
From my five decades of living in North Carolina, my years working in state politics and the countless conversations I’ve had with voters of all political persuasions in recent months, I’ve come up with some key principles on how Democrats can move forward and fight back.
First, we must return to our roots as the party of middle-class opportunity. Growing up in rural Richmond County, I saw how far too many North Carolinians had been left behind, even as the state thrived economically. But I also saw how smart investments by the government – especially in our world-class schools and universities – could level the playing field and create economic opportunity and mobility, regardless of a person’s background or circumstances.
Growing up in that small town, the Democrats I knew were cut from the cloth of visionaries like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt – progressive and deeply humble, leaders who were willing to work with anyone to expand economic opportunity to every corner of the state.
However, in recent years the Democratic Party, fairly or not, has been portrayed as out of touch with working families. Democrats need to own up to the party’s mistakes and regain the mantle of economic opportunity by clearly articulating policies and a message that puts strengthening the middle-class at the center of everything it does.
In doing so, the party’s focus shouldn’t be a blind push for more spending or government programs. Instead, it should be on implementing smart policies that, as Cooper has articulated, work in concert with the private sector to leave North Carolinians better educated, healthier and with more money in their pockets.
Second, Democrats need to embrace the party’s diversity. For decades North Carolina has rightfully been seen as a progressive beacon in the South – open and welcoming to all who wanted to work hard and make a good life here for their families. But that image has been tarnished in recent years by misguided and discriminatory legislation from Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly.
The N.C. Democratic Party, and the state’s politics, should reflect the state’s rich diversity – not reject it. That’s why I was so proud when I was elected chair in February that it was alongside the most diverse party leadership in the party’s history. Democrats must continue to strive to embrace and represent the incredible diversity – in race, religion, class and sexual orientation – of the state. And we need to continue to fight back against hateful legislation, like House Bill 2, that discriminated against fellow residents.
Finally, Democrats need to compete for every vote. Too many North Carolinians, from rural towns to the biggest cities, have felt ignored or taken for granted by both parties. This is particularly true among the countless middle-class families who are being squeezed by higher costs and stagnant wages. This was evident last November when so many people either opted not to vote or cast a ballot for Donald Trump out of sheer frustration with the status quo.
As chair, I’m committed to reaching out to those voters, hearing their concerns and explaining how Democrats are fighting for them in Raleigh and in Washington. That’s why I’ve been traveling across the state in recent months, connecting with voters in towns big and small. And it’s why the N.C. Democratic Party is organizing in all 100 counties, with committed activists helping to revitalize grassroots efforts, even in traditionally Republican areas.
For Democrats, last November was a wake-up call unlike any other. Voters in North Carolina, and around the country, decisively rejected the political status quo in a truly historic election. But the months since November have been just as instructive, as unprecedented numbers of Americans re-engaged in the country’s civic life.
As political leaders, we can no longer afford to ignore these signs. That’s why I’m committed to working every day to regain the trust of N.C. residents, articulate a clear vision for the future and build a party that can keep North Carolina and the U.S. moving forward.
Wayne Goodwin is chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party.