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.
That this sentiment turned out to be remarkably and disastrously naïve is now a commonly understood fact. Today, as we survey the damage from six-plus years of right-wing rule and contemplate what things might look like had conservative politicians simply consolidated their gains and declared victory in 2011, the phrase that springs to mind for caring and thinking people is “If only!”
The simple truth is that the Right was then and is now only just getting started. If you doubt this, take a gander at the outrageous list of destructive proposals debated in the General Assembly last week. On issue after issue – K-12 and higher education, taxes, voting rights, the environment, the safety net, church and state, immigration, guns, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the relationship between corporations and human beings – conservative politicians and advocacy groups that inform and fuel their efforts are pushing the envelope ever further to the right.
What’s more, not only do the people behind these changes have no intention of halting their crusade anytime soon, they have no intention of abiding by any traditional set of “rules” that may have been established in years past. Last year’s utterly dishonest and precedent-shattering blockade of Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland should have made this crystal clear to anyone paying attention, but if you still harbor notions that the Right in North Carolina might still be a group with which to “negotiate” and/or find “common ground” through civilized discourse, these should have been shattered once and for all in recent weeks by the barrage of cynical legislation that would remake our court system in a nakedly partisan manner.
As NC Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton has reported in several news stories and blog posts of late, lawmakers have been aggressively and relentlessly altering the state courts in order to cement Republican control and, ultimately, insulate conservative policies from constitutional challenges. The whole thing has gotten so blatant and absurd in recent days that even Republican judges have been speaking up to voice their opposition.
This onslaught in the courts mirrors efforts by Republican lawmakers (a group that’s supposedly dedicated to “local control”) to remake city and county governments through gerrymandering of districts and removal of control over specified issues to advance their ideological agenda.
Bigger and more dangerous than Trump
For thousands of the progressive North Carolinians who have felt themselves called to citizen activism in recent months by the election of Donald Trump, it might seem that the ongoing conservative blitzkrieg is all part of the fallout from last November. In truth, however, it’s bigger and more dangerous than that. It is, in fact, more properly understood as the byproduct of many years of assiduous efforts by right-wing “think tanks,” hard right media propagandists like the inhabitants of Fox News and talk radio, the religious Right and the corporate overlords who write most of the checks.
For decades, these groups have been steadily and relentlessly beating the drum for a vision of society that is radically different from the moderate consensus that prevailed throughout much of the 20th Century. If you doubt this, visit the right-wing websites and read and listen to what these groups say. This isn’t just about a fondness for low taxes. Here in North Carolina, the groups funded by conservative financier Art Pope want, quite literally, to radically remake the American social contract.
Consider some of the guiding premises driving the conservative movement in our state:
The “free market” is sacred and property reigns supreme – We’re not just talking here about a preference for smaller government and limited regulation. The people driving the train for the modern Right view the buying and selling and possession of things as, essentially, a holy exercise ordained by the Almighty. For many, this belief is so fervent and all-consuming that it even blinds them to the global environmental catastrophe that surrounds us and that kills thousands of humans and millions of plants and creatures every day.
If you think this an exaggeration, consider the fact that, at a time in which the public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. alone amount (when one factors in environmental impacts) to nearly $700 billion per year, conservative advocacy groups are working doggedly to kill North Carolina’s promising but still nascent solar and wind energy industries. Their mind boggling excuse: that renewables are receiving an unfair public subsidy!
Think, for a moment, about the absurdity of that claim. First off, even if it were true, who cares? The survival of the planet as we know it is at stake here. But second, it’s not even close to true. In comparison to the effective subsidies we provide to the fossil fuel industry, public supports to wind and solar amount to a pittance.
And so it goes. The Right isn’t just pushing to make the market economy work better and more efficiently; conservatives are pushing for it (and its central tenets – greed, selfishness, dog-eat-dog competition) to rule every aspect of our lives. We see this in the incessant push to sell off and privatize our schools and universities, roads and transportation systems, parks and beaches, communications networks and drinking water and all other things public. We even see it in the drive to make religion and faith a competitive sport of winners and losers.
“Freedom” and “liberty” redefined – This push to elevate property rights above all others works hand-in-glove, of course, with the Right’s longstanding effort to appropriate and redefine the words “freedom” and “liberty.” For decades now, conservative groups have labeled themselves as pro-“freedom” and pro-“liberty” even though the policy positions they espouse have little, if anything, to do with those concepts when it comes to the real lives of real people.
After all, who is freer and enjoys a greater degree of liberty: an individual who earns a living wage and who harbors no concerns about her access to health care, the health of the environment she inhabits and the schools to which she sends her children, but who pays 15% of her income in state taxes or a person who enjoys none of those blessings but who pays 5%? Tragically, in the view of those who dominate North Carolina policy and politics right now, it’s the latter person. Even more tragic is the fact that progressives have let conservatives get away with the theft and perversion of these vital American concepts.
So now what?
The bottom line in all of this is that the Right’s actions are not the efforts of a group of “reasonable” people with whom forward-looking Americans can have mere “disagreements” and seek to find “common ground.” Oh sure, there will always be occasional instances in which conservatives and progressives may negotiate and find agreement on specific issues. And, of course, basic rules of decency, civility and nonviolence are an absolute must for anyone who claims to be a progressive.
But as a general matter, 21st Century progressives will have no more success finding workable long-term compromises with the people driving the modern Right than they did with 19th Century robber barons or 20th Century segregationists. For better or worse, we must wake up to the hard but undeniable reality that today’s conservatives want to radically remake our society for the worse and it is our duty to resist and push back, outwork and outlast them and, ultimately, to prevail.