This could almost be seen, in North Carolina, as a time for taking stock. A new year is underway. A long, contentious legislative session is well past us. No new session, thankfully, is yet undertaken. State elections loom, but they have not warmed. The national presidential escapade seems distant – if not in time, at least in geography. Our state political tides roil less forcefully. For the moment.
Patterns are well and stubbornly established. The Republican General Assembly has struck a dramatic new course for North Carolina. The Tar Heel State has been converted from an occasionally progressive island of the New South to the nation’s spearhead of political conservatism. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s most faithful and fevered servant. There can no longer be sensible doubt about the path laid out for us.
So complete is the unfolding crusade that many of its primary architects have chosen to retire, their revolution seemingly accomplished. The governor, admittedly, has become starkly irrelevant to the evolved contest – as we continue our odd experiment in governance without chief executive. But decisions have been made, and continue to cascade, that shape our contours as a commonwealth. They’re not just drops of water on a rock. They are made in our name. They define us as a people. The agenda is proud and patent. And the die is largely cast. Even if those words are hard to write.
So it seems sensible to reflect on what we seek for ourselves as a polity. What are our foundational aspirations for North Carolina?
▪ Do we strive to become a society deeply committed to the full dignity and membership of all? Put another way, do we relish and celebrate the 14th Amendment command of equality or do we begrudge it and rue its seeming shackles? Much political energy and legislative output, over the last five years, have taken aim at the prospects of racial minorities, lesbians and gay men, immigrants, women, the poor, the refugee. The barrage employs Sen. Thom Tillis’ noted marching orders to “divide and conquer.” It ignores Robert Kennedy’s warning that “he who denies the outcast and the stranger also denies America.”
▪ Are we a confident democracy, welcoming engagement, casting our fate on the side of full and generous participation, proud and optimistic in our founding premise of self-governance? Or are we to be a crabbed, fearful, querulous and excluding lot – ever-worried that our group may not always enjoy the ascendancy of its past? Lincoln died in the belief that “allowing all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that only, is self-government.” Finely crafted gerrymanders, biased ID requirements, poll closures, registration restrictions and structural municipal manipulations wage war on Lincoln’s premise. Curtailing democratic participation expresses an anomalous faithlessness in the actual American promise.
▪ Shall we abandon North Carolina’s historic, enabling and almost visceral commitment to public education? The commitment that, more than any other, has worked to separate us from much of the South. Do we mean to allow this jettison? Can’t we at least be candid that the dismantling of public education is a principal, unrelenting goal of our General Assembly? Or are all the vouchers, charters, budget cuts, wrenching salary limitations, tenure and teaching assistant eliminations, rhetorical attacks and constantly pronounced school failures actually meant to accomplish something else? When we settle in to the lowest funding regime among the 50 states, will we still boast a proud dedication to learning?
▪ What of our obligation of stewardship to the wonders and majesties of North Carolina? We seem hell-bent on an increasingly consumptive and exploitative relationship to the state’s unparalleled natural environment. As if literally nothing – not our air, our water, our seacoast, our mountains, not even our children’s health – can trump the claimed possibilities of profit. We seem enthusiastic to prove we’ll embrace risk that others renounce – with fracking, offshore drilling, coal ash, agricultural waste, the dismantling of DEQ, the “see no evil” rejection of climate science. Hubris replaces reverence. Recklessness swamps conservancy.
▪ To put it crudely, how long will we embrace the role of greedy bully? Though we have among the nation’s highest rates of poverty, child poverty, concentrated poverty, hunger, economic immobility and income inequality, our most consistent policy agenda has been to limit the benefits and raise the taxes of the impoverished to bestow even greater accumulations of wealth on the rich. As if it were no longer thought hideous to deploy power and privilege to pilfer from the poor.
Our leaders have acted with energy and clarity to implement their values. Are their standards actually our own?
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.