I’m not one, generally speaking, for reading polls. I do have, I’ll concede, an unhealthy interest in politics. But my focus doesn’t typically turn to the methods and strategies of organizing and electioneering. There’s enough of that to go around.
Still, I was somewhat startled by the starkness of our divisions in the exit polls published by the Washington Post a couple weeks ago from the Virginia governor’s race. I know, more than most, that North Carolina is not Virginia. Ever may it be so. I also understand that country-club Republican, Ed Gillespie, ran an odd campaign – seeming to cling, for the first time, to Nathan Bedford Forest and Willie Horton. But, that said, the trends are bold enough to speak to the future of progressive politics – at least in North Carolina and perhaps the rest of the South.
Democrat Ralph Northam beat Gillespie by almost 9 points in the official tally – 53.9 percent to 45 percent. Most men voted for Gillespie, but 61 percent of women supported Northam. A stunning seven of 10 voters under 30 and 61 percent under 44 voted for the Democrat, while 53 percent of those over 65 cast their ballot for the Republican. Nearly six of 10 whites (57 percent) went with Gillespie. Eighty-seven percent of blacks and two-thirds of Hispanics sided with Northam. Sixty-three percent of white men and a majority of white women voted Republican. Eighty-one percent of black men and a whopping 91 percent of black women voted Democratic. College graduates supported Northam very heavily. White evangelicals delivered an astonishing 79 percent for Gillespie, as did 71 percent of those supporting the retention of confederate monuments.
There’s a good deal to be said about this.
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First, the demographics are unnerving, or worse, for Republicans. In 2017, a coalition that is old, white, male, evangelical, confederate and non-college educated is not promising. Small wonder that electoral suppression has become such an essential component of Republicanism – seeking to hold back an advancing tide. And if cheating is the tool deployed, lying about cheating becomes the necessary sidekick. It is tough and un-American duty.
Second, the exit polls suggest why white evangelicals might be annoyed. They deliver the stoutest, most dependable, enthusiastic and uniform bloc on which Republicans can rely. In North Carolina, in return, they get a steady stream of measures designed to demean lesbian, gay and transgender Tar Heels – though most are eventually voided by the courts. The only certain payoff for the white fundamentalist lockstep is, as ever, tax cuts for the richest 5 percent. But, by definition, most evangelicals will never see that largesse. So the bargain rankles.
Third, it’s easy to see why women of color might be irritated with their white sisters. Most white women voted for Gillespie. Over nine of 10 black women supported his opponent. One possibility here is that lots of white women vote their pocketbooks (tax cuts) assuming women of color and other progressives will prevent Republicans from re-instituting the reproductive rights regimes of the 1940s. You can’t have it, the saying goes, both ways.
Fourth, and broader. Democratic politics seems extraordinarily tepid when laid next to its constituents – racial minorities, women, the young, the poor, immigrants, the LGBT community, those powerfully committed to education and the environment. Republicans play to their base like maestros. Democrats take theirs for granted.
North Carolina Republicans govern as a calcified white people’s party. Democrats act as if they have no idea who elected them. They campaign by saying: “vote for me, I’m just like a Republican except I’m not hateful and don’t believe in overt, intended racial suppression.” Not exactly a message to make the heart soar.
Imagine instead, an agenda attuned to the unfolding, optimistic, forward-peering Democratic constituency. One embracing universal educational access and opportunity; attacking grotesque racial disparity and life chance; casting aside debilitating predispositions of gender and orientation; ending the American humiliation of poverty; seeking sustaining paths of beauty, health and wonder rather than dominion and rapacity; opting for community with the stranger and the dispossessed; endorsing a future that excites and ennobles rather than terrifies; carrying forward a defining birthright of civil liberty and civil right.
It is time for a trenchant, robust and unequivocal parting of ways.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.