Anita Earls, who was elected Tuesday to a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court, ought to be happy that legislative Republicans apparently spend so much time reading Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century treatise on power, “The Prince.”
Machiavelli urged a style of cunning political manipulation that’s been embraced by Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Only that Machiavelli was shrewder.
Berger and Moore can’t resist rigging the rules of the game to what they think will be Republicans’ advantage. But, as The Insider’s Colin Campbell recently showed, sometimes they outsmart themselves. In this case, that led to Earls, a Democrat, winning election to an eight-year term over Barbara Jackson, an incumbent Republican justice who otherwise would have been the favorite to win.
The back story: Democrats held a 4-3 majority on the court and only Jackson’s seat was up for reelection this year. Republican hopes of eventually regaining the majority rested on Jackson’s winning re-election.
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Legislative Republicans hatched a scheme to tilt the election to Jackson (“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,” Machiavelli wrote). They canceled the primaries that would have chosen a winner from each party; there would be only the November election. They expected Jackson to be the only Republican candidate, that several Democrats would divide that party’s votes, and that Jackson would win.
But no Democrat emerged to challenge Earls, an impressive Yale-educated lawyer who’d had success in challenging gerrymandering and other laws passed by legislative Republicans. And then Chris Anglin, a young Raleigh lawyer, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and entered the race. Republicans tried to block Anglin but were defeated in court.
Anglin took Republican votes from Jackson. Earls won 49.5 percent, Jackson 34 percent and Anglin 16.4 percent.
If there’s been a consistent theme during the Berger-Moore era, it’s been their zeal for changing the rules so they can accumulate more power.
After Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected, legislative Republicans moved to shrink the N.C. Court of Appeals from 15 seats to 12, which would limit the number of vacant seats Cooper could fill. Appeals Judge Doug McCullough, a Republican, crossed up legislative leaders by resigning early, allowing Cooper to appoint a Democrat to replace him.
Then there were the two proposed constitutional amendments that would have shifted power from the governor to legislators. All 11 former governors and chief justices, from both parties, opposed those two amendments. Voters saw that for the embarrassing power grab it was and defeated both amendments handily.
“He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived,” Machiavelli wrote. Someone, yes. But maybe most North Carolinians are finally seeing Berger and Moore’s political manipulation for the deceit that it is.
Reasonable people can disagree on policy. But we all ought to be in favor of good government. When Republicans were in the minority, Berger was a champion of good government. Sadly, those days are long gone. Instead, Berger has spent much of the last eight years, as Machiavelli recommended, attempting to accumulate power through illegitimate means.
Another student of political manipulation, the social-choice theorist William H. Riker, wrote that political outcomes depend on whether “some leader has the skill, energy, and resources to manipulate the agenda....These are matters of perception and personality and understanding and character.”
It’s easy to be in favor of good government when you’re in the minority. It’s a test of character to support good government when you have the votes to do otherwise.