Op-Ed

Where’s the fight in North Carolina’s Democratic Party?

It is impossible to miss the fact that an election approaches. Commercials launch from every corner and platform. You couldn’t avoid them if you tried. I’ve tried.

But despite all the money, outside influence, debates, consultants, phone calls and ads, this election, and its accompanying politics, is oddly removed from our challenges. It’s no match for our urgencies. North Carolina faces a fight for its decency. Our politicians, somehow, have largely missed the bout. We’re in the struggle of our lives. Our leaders proceed with a whimper.

The General Assembly has brutally denied health care to half a million of our most vulnerable citizens. Many will die as a result. It has required women to undergo a coerced, medically unnecessary sonogram and a Soviet-style propaganda spiel to shame them from exercising reproductive freedom.

It has enacted the largest cut to an unemployment compensation program in American history. It’s taken great chunks of our education budget – already among the worst in the nation – to subsidize unaccountable, discriminatory, often absurd sectarian schools. It has launched a regime of environmental degradation and acted to assure the presence of guns in every venue.

It has eliminated the earned income tax credit, raising the rates of low-income workers, to finance tax cuts for the rich. It has betrayed our national promise by boldly attacking the right to vote. It will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to join a lawsuit that’s already over, to remind its base how much it detests lesbians and gay men.

Of all this, Republicans brag incessantly – declaring they’ve made “tough choices” to right the ship. Apparently it takes manly gusto to step on the necks of the marginalized. A clueless governor waved it all through. This is the worst, most destructive, record in modern North Carolina history. And we now lead the nation in a stunning effort to inter our defining aspiration to equality.

If that’s not enough to stir revolt, I’m not sure what would.


Still, most of our legislative races are low key – timid cobbling and patching. Democrats offer tepid support for education or environmental moderation or, on occasion, a woman’s right to choose. They announce that Republicans overplayed their hands, so an eventual return to power is assured. As if they care little for the destruction visited in the meantime. The fight of the century looks like a croquet match at the country club.

It is true, of course, that we’re undergoing an astonishingly expensive and pervasive U.S. Senate race. And the Republican nominee is the central architect of our path-breaking record of outrages. But Sen. Kay Hagan is a singularly unlikely figure to carry the banner of the marginalized and dispossessed to the top of the hill.

She’s the bankers’ best friend. Her constant refrain that she’s “the most moderate member of the Senate” is a reminder, to many, that she stands for little. Saying, in effect “I’m the Democratic senator most like the Republicans” is hardly a call to arms. “If this is a fight for the soul of North Carolina, I’m with you – 51 percent of the time.” Where do I enlist?

But North Carolina, itself, is on fire. Teachers and the parents of, and believers in, their students are intensely mobilized. Equality NC successfully presses the gay community and all those who believe in their full humanity. Planned Parenthood fights like the future of our freedom is in the balance, since it is. The AFL-CIO organizes tirelessly. The NC-NAACP is an energized and engaged activist force in every corner of the state. It makes our partisan groupings seem bloodless and lukewarm.

And, of course, the Moral Monday movement has emboldened the nation. The numbers who have taken to our streets to reclaim a humane mission for their homeland astonish. They know what’s at stake. And they act like it.

But despite the claims of its adversaries, Moral Monday is not a partisan, electoral enterprise. It doesn’t proffer and propose candidates. No politicians comprise its leadership. It is inspired by a brilliant and charismatic preacher and the hundreds of thousands who answer his call. It moves and ignites a people. It doesn’t run candidate campaigns.

The woods are ablaze. But the North Carolina Democratic Party is, at present, largely unsuited to capitalize on the fury. It has some great figures. It’s not, though, a potent state force. It barely recognizes what blows in the wind. Come Election Day, Carolina’s boldest hearts and brotherhoods will have to do the heaviest lifting.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He doesn’t speak for UNC.

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