The last seven years in North Carolina politics and policy have been extraordinary. In a very short period of time, a once moderate state has been transformed into a kind of laboratory for far right policies and a testing ground for what we are coming to know now as Trumpism. On issue after issue, state legislative leaders have aggressively pursued an ultra-conservative agenda that seeks to radically remake the state’s social contract.
What’s more, this has not been a happy or buoyant transformation. Rather than being predicated on a positive or hopeful new vision of society, the conservative revolution in North Carolina has mostly been a counter-revolution. Even today, a point at which they enjoy veto-proof majorities and can realistically contemplate an entire decade in power, conservative legislative leaders premise most of their actions and policies more on an angry rejection of past supposed transgressions by Democrats than a coherent articulation of what they want to build.
Seventy-nine months into the modern conservative era in North Carolina politics, the things the Right is against – supposedly failing public schools, supposedly high taxes, supposedly burdensome regulations, supposed welfare programs, supposed big government, supposed assaults on “religious freedom” and gun rights, supposed “special preferences” for racial minorities, immigrants and LGBT people – remain at the heart of its agenda.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric remains decidedly angry. Whether it’s in the steady stream of invective-laced official statements and social media posts emanating from the office of Senate leader Phil Berger or the hateful attacks and personal putdowns issued almost daily by conservative think tanks, “news” websites and advocacy groups, the predominant conservative posture is, bizarrely, one of bitter victimhood.
A recent fundraising appeal sent out by the arch-conservative Civitas Institute screeched that the group was a in a desperate pitched battle to combat “the Leftist media,” (sic) “the dishonesty of the leftist press and liberal networks” and “the multi-million dollar NC media industry.”
A tepid, muzzled response
What’s especially weird about all of this, of course, is that North Carolina conservatives are anything but besieged. In truth, their movement has seldom been more powerful or wielded more control over state policy. Meanwhile, their adversaries – both real and potential – are frequently scattered, divided and disheartened.
Yes, some of the state’s major news outlets have been turning out a steady stream of critical editorials and opinion columns, but many others do little more than reiterate the un-revelatory “here’s what the two sides say” approach of the news pages. Still others have voiced approval for much of the conservative agenda.
And when it comes to day-to-day news coverage, the vaunted “liberal media” isn’t even a shadow of its once formidable self. The Washington Post and other national news outlets may be enjoying a bit of a renaissance in recent months in response to the rise of Trump, but here in Raleigh, the most obvious fact about the cadre of reporters assigned to cover state government for the “mainstream media” in recent years is its rapid and ongoing contraction.
Those reporters who remain on the scene are overworked, overwhelmed and often ill-equipped to do much more than try to keep track of some of what’s happening. At a time during which conservative leaders have been effecting a radical overhaul in state public policy, in-depth investigations and exposés (and even tough and probing questions for Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore) are incredibly scarce. Last week, at a time of much secretive and destructive late-session lawmaking on several issues of enormous importance, many reporter Twitter feeds were filled with chatter about the so-called “Sunday brunch” bill and gossipy insider speculation about when the session would end.
Meanwhile, even many progressive advocacy groups seem hesitant to push back forcefully against the conservative powers that be – presumably for fear of payback. Witness the spectacle of advocates heaping wildly disproportionate praise upon the 2017 session for lawmakers’ long overdue and still under-resourced move to “raise the age” of adult criminal prosecutions from age 16 to 18 – even as dozens of other disastrous law changes sailed through with little outcry.
Classic symptoms of an abusive situation
In some ways, the current North Carolina policy and politics scene bears a striking and sobering resemblance to that of an abusive personal or family relationship. A survey of dozens of websites designed to help victims of domestic abuse recognize their plight and escape their tormenters (like this one) reveals several similar behavior patterns in current state political power relationships.
Consider the following:
The drumbeat of anger, negativity and blame-casting – As noted above, this has been a constant with conservative leaders for several years. In this bizarre worldview, every problem in North Carolina – both within government and without – is the fault of liberals bent on mindlessly expanding “big government” and confiscating “freedom.” Similar contempt is, of course, constantly directed toward the “liberal media.”
The constant desire to bully, dominate and punish – As was noted in last week’s essay on the absurd “impeachment” attack against Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, there seem to be fewer and fewer lengths to which the Right is unwilling to go in pursuing its agenda and visiting revenge on those who resist its efforts. The outrageous budget cuts directed at Attorney General Stein offer further confirmation of this abusive approach.
Secrecy and a refusal to compromise or communicate – The longstanding assault on voting rights (and the blatant flip-flop on partisan gerrymandering) ought to have tipped us off as to how far Republicans were willing to push the envelope when it comes to ends-justify-the-means governance. As was noted in this space last week, however, this year’s budget bill plumbed new depths when it comes to lawmaking secrecy and process manipulation.
A narcissistic absence of self-criticism and self-awareness – Politics is seldom a world inhabited by publicly self-critical individuals, but with the current conservative leadership in North Carolina, the obstinate, Trump-like refusal even to admit the existence of complexities and gray areas is striking.
Fear and passivity – As noted above, many reporters, lobbyists and advocates in North Carolina have been notably hesitant to rock the boat of late in questioning and standing up to conservative leaders. Some of this may be the result of a lack of capacity but some is also undoubtedly the result of fear – fear of direct payback and/or fear of lack of access.
Lack of awareness – As multiple domestic violence experts point out, many victims are simply not cognizant of the fact that they are even being taken advantage of in the first place. They are so used to a certain way of being treated that they don’t recognize it as an unhealthy situation.
And so it appears to be for many in and around the policymaking world in Raleigh. At a time in which many outside observers are authoring scathing critiques, making the state the constant butt of jokes and even questioning whether democracy here still exists, many North Carolinians close to policy “ground zero” seem to think things here are somehow “normal.” Rather than calling out the last several years of conservative rule for what they are and have been – a systematic and relentless effort to repeal much of the progress of the 20th Century – far too many in state policymaking circles these days miss the forest for the trees and chalk things up to “politics as usual.”
None of this rudimentary analogizing is intended to make light of or diminish in any way the genuine horror that is domestic violence and abuse. Every day, around the world, millions of people – most, but not all of them, women – suffer terrible emotional and physical harm in abusive personal relationships. Clearly, a flawed and dysfunctional political situation is not the same thing.
That said, it cannot be denied that there are important similarities in the two situations or that, happily, similar escape routes present themselves. For vulnerable individuals, a combination of awareness, courage, determination and the help of others can frequently provide a path to safety, freedom and a new life. The same is undeniably true for those who can and should expose and resist the hostile right-wing takeover of North Carolina politics and policy. Let’s hope for (and work toward) such an outcome.