Just over a year ago I wrote an op-ed for the News and Observer bemoaning the state of democracy in North Carolina. “North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy” went viral on social media around the world. It was seen by over a million people and the response was overwhelming.
Many applauded what they saw as a wake-up call to protect our democracy, others felt the criticisms were overblown, while a minority reacted so violently to my article that measures had to be taken to protect my safety on campus. A year on, many people have asked me to take stock of where North Carolina’s democracy is today. Has it gotten worse or better? Let’s review the events of the last year. In what ways have we improved, where have we declined?
A deal was struck on HB2 – the transphobic ‘bathroom bill.’ That was good. It mitigated the discrimination against transgender and gender variant Tar Heels. But the quid-pro-quo for rescinding the law was precluding cities and counties in North Carolina from passing non-discrimination laws until 2020 and left bathroom regulation in the hands of the legislature. We went back to a situation worse than before HB2. The status quo was discrimination, hostility and damage to people – it was unacceptable then and, in a decent society, it is unacceptable today.
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Hundreds of thousands of Tar Heels are more engaged in politics than they have been in a very long time. There is a real vibrancy of debate and enquiry on issues and institutions. The Moral Monday movement, citizen activists, and a cottage-industry of local think tanks shine a light on the actions of our elected officials and power brokers. Unfortunately, people power has struggled to overcome vested power – the behavior of our leaders has worsened – but at least we have greater awareness of what is going wrong and how we might change it.
Partisan gerrymandering, which is at the root of our democratic decline, remains firmly in place. The state legislature failed to satisfy the courts so a special master was appointed to redraw district lines. But even if his plan is ultimately enforced the essential bias and unfairness largely remains in the system. It’s moving deckchairs on the titanic.
Who have provided the most effective checks on government misdeeds? The Courts. So it is no surprise that the legislature is waging a multi-front war against judicial independence. A raft of proposals amount to an attempted legislative takeover of the judiciary.
2017 could have been named “The Year of Legislating in Secret”. Bills were not given to legislators until the last minute, there was little or no public consultation, and crucial information was withheld from the public and their representatives. Our leadership acts more like a Soviet politburo than democratic government.
Through words and deeds our leadership has encouraged racism and created a safe space for white supremacists. When government speaks their language, echoes their concerns, we embolden the extremes. When we focus on protecting the symbols that celebrate and reinforce white supremacy – such as UNC’s Silent Sam – we send a strong signal about who counts as a Tar Heel, who belongs.
The decline of North Carolina’s democracy in 2017 far outweighed the areas of improvement. This is not just about institutions, it’s about leadership. The powerful men of the state have given over themselves to their worst angels. They govern out of fear and greed. Fear of the other – the brown, the queer; greed for power and control.
In their new bestselling book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show that most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals but by elected governments themselves. “Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance,” and crucially, “people do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s conclusion after studying democratic failures around the world is scarily relevant to North Carolina. How does democracy die? Elected autocrats pack and weaponize the courts. They buy off the media and the private sector. And they rewrite the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. They write, “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”
Andrew Reynolds is a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.