At the conclusion of the whirlwind 2011 session of the North Carolina General Assembly — a session in which new conservative majorities pushed through a raft of dramatic policy changes —many progressive North Carolinians surveyed the aftermath and found themselves actually breathing a sigh of relief. There was a widespread feeling that the fury of the storm had passed, that the Right had vented its collective spleen and that, having pushed through so much of its long-stymied policy agenda, conservative leaders would settle down to focus on governing the state.
Today, of course, this all seems remarkably naïve. As the preceding pages have made clear, 2011 wasn’t the climax; it was just the first chapter in a long-term effort to radically remake North Carolina and rewrite the state’s social contract. Where once the state was widely regarded and frequently celebrated as a Southern outlier and an outpost of forward-thinking attitudes and policies, strict conformance with modern conservative ideology is now the order of the day.
Nowhere is this dramatic shift better symbolized than in the way state leaders think and talk about government itself. For the better part of the 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st, government was widely seen and spoken of as a force for good — a powerful engine that, alongside a healthy home-grown business community, helped drive progress and promote widely-shared prosperity.
Today, things are very different. According to North Carolina’s most powerful politicians and their most important supporters, government is at best a necessary evil and at worst the enemy of freedom.
The results of this dramatic shift are readily evident in the increasingly underfunded and fragile public structures that once undergirded the middle class. Even as conservatives describe every new job as part of a miraculous “Carolina Comeback” and blame every plant closing or shuttered hospital on the Obama administration, the plain fact is that North Carolina is a darker, drabber, more divided and less hopeful place than it ought to be several years into an economic recovery.
Consider the following:
- Median incomes are down.
- Most counties have fewer jobs than they did prior to the Great Recession.
- State expenditures, as a percentage of total state personal income, are at a 40-year low and the responsibility for funding government has been shifted away from the wealthy and profitable corporations and onto the poor and middle class.
- The state’s once middle-of-the-pack social safety net stands torn and threadbare.
- Thousands of North Carolinians die prematurely each year for want of access to affordable health care.
- Schoolteachers, university professors and other public employees are a dispirited, underpaid and increasingly overwhelmed group.
- Compliance with environmental protection laws has been made voluntary for polluters.
- The state’s once-burgeoning voter participation rates have been depressed by new and restrictive laws.
- Narrow sectarian religious views have been elevated over the fundamental rights of women and LGBTQ citizens.
- Laws to abet the spread of guns and, indeed, to treat them as near-sacred icons stand triumphant.
The Right is far from finished
And lest anyone conclude, à la 2011, that any kind of letup is on tap in the conservative push, they would do well to think again.
One of the most important and dangerous examples of this sobering situation is “TABOR” — the egregiously misnamed “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.” Also sometimes referred to as the “Taxpayer Protection Act,” TABOR has been a favored scheme of many conservative and libertarian think tanks for decades. Its simple and superficially appealing objective: to amend state constitutions so as to arbitrarily limit year-to-year growth in spending to a rate that reflects a combination of inflation plus population growth.
In 1994, conservative activists succeeded in getting Colorado voters to enact a TABOR amendment, and the results were disastrous. Funding for education and other core state services plummeted. At one point the federal government was forced to take over the state’s bankrupt child immunization program.
Since that time, the Colorado experience has helped block its adoption in any other state. In many instances, business leaders have spearheaded the opposition. Unfortunately, hard-right think tanks and activists remain undeterred.
In 2015, the TABOR bug infected North Carolina as the state Senate unveiled and speedily pushed through a late-session proposal to place a TABOR constitutional amendment on the ballot in the fall of 2016. And while the House has thus far chosen not to follow suit, it’s easy to envision such action next spring — something that would force voters to render judgment on a complex and misleading constitutional amendment in the midst of a lengthy presidential election ballot.
If that happens and voters were to approve it, TABOR would have the effect of locking in permanent budget cuts that would be even more severe than those of recent years. That, in turn, would assure, for instance, that no general, across-the-board raise could ever —literally, ever — again be provided to teachers and state employees unless it was paired with massive spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
And while TABOR would institutionalize the overarching war on government and modernity, conservatives remain determined to push ahead on several other fronts as well, including:
— Education, where the drives to privatize K-12 schools with vouchers and for-profit charters and dramatically reduce the state’s commitment to public higher education remain in the full-speed-ahead mode.
— The social safety net, where conservative leaders talk openly of working to do away with unemployment insurance, Medicaid and other “welfare” programs and of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
— Environmental protection, where the push continues to transform the once-proud Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) into a backwater bureaucracy that exists primarily to serve as adjunct staff to local polluters looking to evade federal rules.
— Civil rights, where conservatives proclaim regularly and loudly that, in effect, a color-blind society has been achieved and that no further state action is necessary to address the effects of centuries of racial segregation and discrimination.
— Social issues, where the religious right remains undaunted in its crusades to end all abortion, greatly limit the use of birth control and to force LGBTQ North Carolinians back into the closet.
Even on the huge challenge of climate change — a matter on which North Carolina stands especially vulnerable to threats of drought, increasingly intense storms and rising sea levels — a majority of conservative leaders remain obstinately opposed to even acknowledging the problem, much less following the lead of other states by taking strong action.
In short, things seem as likely as not to get worse before they get better. Five years of conservative rule has produced dramatic changes, but its authors are hardly sated or ready to declare “mission accomplished.” The Right — especially the hard, Tea Party Right — sees itself no less aggrieved by the state of the nation and the planet in 2015 than it was in 2010.
The path forward: Grounds for hope?
And still, for all of this sobering news and analysis, there are excellent reasons for caring and thinking people to take heart and even to feel a sense of optimism as they contemplate the future of North Carolina. Here are five that stand out:
#1 – North Carolina hasn’t become Alabama or Mississippi overnight — North Carolina government may be in the midst of a policy upheaval, but it would be a huge mistake to see it as permanent or reflective of some parallel shift in popular values. The 2010 election gave conservatives a commanding legislative majority, and they used the census-year redistricting process to lock in that majority for the decade. But that doesn’t alter North Carolina’s status as a moderate, evenly divided “purple” state that supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and nearly did so in 2012.
#2 – The conservative upheaval finds little support in public opinion — Public opinion remains generally in favor of more investment in public education, a higher minimum wage, stronger gun laws, reproductive freedom, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tougher environmental protection laws and opposed to school vouchers, tax cuts for millionaires and weaker consumer protection laws. Even on marriage equality – an issue that found minuscule popular support a decade ago – polls now find North Carolinians evenly divided and trending progressive. In part because of these trends, support for the General Assembly is nearly as low as it is for Congress. Meanwhile, Governor McCrory continues to draw higher unfavorable ratings than President Obama.
#3 – Conservative leaders face significant challenges from within their movement — As with a lot of “revolutions,” the first few years of conservative rule in North Carolina have put in power a lot of true believers — committed ideologues more interested in policy outcomes than the processes and niceties of governance. This, in turn, led to the use of lots of ends-justify-the-means tactics to get laws passed as quickly as possible — bent legislative rules, late-night sessions, limited debate, the secretive burying of new law changes in “technical corrections” bills that were never discussed in public and so on. Over time, this has provoked a growing chorus of opposition from within conservative circles — something that seems certain to grow stronger over time. Indeed, during the seemingly endless 2015 session, one saw real divides emerging among Republicans in the General Assembly — many of whom wondered openly whether the process and even some of the substance had been pushed too far.
#4 – The demographic trends favor progressive change — Through all of the upheaval, North Carolina remains a large and fast-growing state. What’s more, essentially all of this growth is taking place in larger, urban counties whose citizens tend to think, view the world and vote through a more progressive lens. Add to this the rapid growth in the population of racial and ethnic minorities (the state will become majority-minority within a few decades) and, once again, the current conservative push looks less and less sustainable.
#5 – The emergence of an increasingly potent progressive grassroots movement — But perhaps the best and most important grounds for optimism at the close of 2015 are rooted in the emergence of new and increasingly formidable political forces committed to returning the state to a progressive path. The Moral Mondays/Forward Together “fusion” movement led by the dynamic Rev. William Barber II of the North Carolina NAACP is the most visible and celebrated symbol of this resurgence, but many other important actors and forces stand out. There’s the insurgent activism of grassroots groups like the “Fight for 15” living wage movement, the revival of progressive activism on college campuses, the steady growth of the state’s Latino and Asian-American advocacy communities, the emergence of a new breed of progressive, high-tech corporate leaders and, of course, a growing population of transplants from around the U.S. and the rest of the world. Together with the surviving elements of the state’s once dominant progressive business establishment, these forces stand poised to push the pendulum back toward the center.
By 2030, a point at which it is projected to be the nation’s seventh most populous state, North Carolina figures to have at least as much in common with the progressive and diverse states of the West Coast and Northeast as it does with the Old South, or even fellow Sunbelt states like Florida and Texas.
If that’s the case however, what should we ultimately make of the current conservative surge? Have the past five years been a mere interlude — the last loud gasp of an ideology about to meet its demise in a tidal wave of demographic and economic change? As we’ve seen, there’s good reason for hope.
But progressives would also do well to recall that much of the Right’s undeniable success in working its will on state policy is the residue of design. For decades now, conservative funders, politicians, think tanks, religious activists and corporate lobby groups have worked diligently and spent mountains of cash in a coordinated fashion to roll back the clock and to resist the social and economic changes that progressives champion and conservatives fear. They will not go quietly or painlessly back into the minority. It will take the sustained commitment of tens of thousands of activists, organizers, lobbyists, litigators, writers, bloggers, researchers, thinkers, business people, funders, politicians and voters to turn things around.
Fifty-plus years ago, the forebears of modern North Carolina progressives faced down and overcame the obstructionism of a cast of conservative characters far more hateful and shameless than the wrecking crew running the show today. Through determined advocacy and sacrifice they helped turn the tide and usher in a new era of relative social progress and widely shared prosperity.
Now is the time to do so once again.