If you put The News & Observer’s two contributing opinion columnists, J. Peder Zane and Gene Nichol, into a head-to-head debate, they might disagree on just about everything, for they are reflective of the opposing sides of our polarized politics.
Or their meeting might produce a surprise, a respectful and enlightening exchange between men with starkly different perspectives on politics and policy in North Carolina and the nation.
Which would it be? We’re about to find out.
Zane and Nichol will debate as The N&O resumes its Community Voices series. Their subject: Where is Republican leadership taking North Carolina? The event will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the North Carolina Museum of History. Admission is free for N&O subscribers and $10 for others. You can register at eventbrite.com.
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Nichol, 67, is a former law school dean at the University of Colorado and UNC-Chapel Hill and a former president of the College of William & Mary, which he left after bitter disputes over freedom of speech and religion. Now a UNC law professor, he remains a proud liberal and advocate for the poor. His columns often blast North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders, for what he sees as their callousness toward the needy.
Zane, 56, a former N&O books editor and now an editor at Real Clear Investigations, relishes being contrarian and pointing out what he considers liberals’ smugness about their virtue and blindness about their intolerance.
Despite their differences, the columnists have two things in common. They’re strong writers and they provoke strong reactions.
Republican leaders were so irritated by Nichol’s hectoring columns that they had the UNC Board of Governors order the dismantling of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity that Nichol led at the UNC law school.
Don’t talk to him about compromising with a legislature he sees as having taken his moderate state on a radical right turn. In his recent column “Confessions of a firebrand,” Nichol wrote: “It won’t work, at this point, to focus on what ‘unites’ us. When folks blatantly and enthusiastically reject equality, democracy, separated powers, checks and balances, and the traditions of constitutional government, it won’t do to say, ‘Hey bud, I’ll meet you in the middle.’ ”
Zane’s columns trigger howls of protest from liberal readers and praise from conservatives. It’s clear why. In his most recent column, he criticized progressives he prefers to call “leftists” for having an “anti-democratic approach to politics and life” as “their defining characteristic.”
As for the Republican lawmakers and where they’ve taken North Carolina, Zane doesn’t agree with some of their forays into social issues, but he’s happy with the overall direction.
“I think the Republicans have been good stewards of the government itself, they’ve put us on a good footing,” he said. “They’ve protected us from the next downturn. The role of government is not to solve all the problems of the world. It’s to run the government well and I think they have succeeded at that.”
What Zane sees as good footing, Nichol sees as standing on the edge of a cliff.
“I think we’re in a remarkable period in North Carolina history,” he said. “This is not the usual give and take, back and forth, of normal politics. I think we’re in a battle for our constitutional traditions and our decency as a people. If there’s ever been a call for all hands on deck, this is it.”
Two views of one state. On Sept. 26, Zane and Nichol will debate where North Carolina has gone right, where it has gone wrong and where it should go next. I hope you’ll be there on the left, on the right or in the middle.