After Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger delivered a hard-edged response in which he said: “the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business. They call Republicans ignorant, dishonest, immoral, racist, bigoted, anti-women, anti-voter, anti-education – even treasonous.”
A senator since 2000, Berger has held leadership positions since 2004 and has a reputation for civility. The tone and content of his response to Cooper’s speech was thus out-of-character, but perhaps understandable given the pressures Berger is under with a Democratic governor and constant attacks from in and out of the state over HB2 and other controversial laws.
That a large majority of North Carolinians think that the nation and state are highly polarized is not surprising, given the 2016 election and its aftermath. However, when we asked open-ended questions about what people thought about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, the intensity of citizens’ perceptions of those different from them was surprising and concerning.
The most often-used word that Democrats used to describe conservatives and Republicans was “racist,” with terms like “evil,” “stupid,” and “uncaring” all being used by a significant number of registered Democrats. Likewise, registered Republicans most frequently used descriptions of liberals and Democrats as “dishonest,” “whiny,” “losers,” and “evil.” Unaffiliated voters had equal disdain for conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, with “liars” being most commonly used, followed by “hypocrites,” “weak,” and “out of touch.”
In addition to the language used, 93 percent of Democrats think the GOP is more extreme and 94 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are more extreme.
These results don’t bode well for those who hope that hyper-partisanship subsides and that political discourse becomes more civil. Instead, these results point to some long-term implications:
1. Elected leaders will continue to stake out extreme policy positions and view compromise as politically untenable, especially on hot button issues.
2. Political parties will continue to lose influence over increasingly larger segments of the population, as people decide that neither party represents them. Because party identification is a large part of voting, this may mean that turnout will drop precipitously.
3. Citizens will continue to see protests and legal actions as their main ways of affecting the outcomes of policies they disagree with.
There are many causes of the hyper-partisanship affecting North Carolina and the United States, but few easy solutions. However, civil discussion and compromise are essential to a functioning democracy, so we must continue to try.
For just over a year, North Carolina roiled in the controversies surrounding House Bill 2 and, after several failed attempts, the governor signed legislation that repealed elements of the original law. Although organizations like the Atlantic Coast Conference have said that the state is now eligible to host athletic championships, HB2 will have lasting effects on the state and its politics.
There are no winners in this year-long political drama, only losers.
North Carolina’s brand: For a state long known around the nation for higher education, beautiful beaches and mountains and economic diversity, we are now referred to as the “bathroom state.” The state will spend millions on rebranding and marketing, but the efforts to transform the nation’s perceptions of the state will take time.
Both political parties: The Democratic and Republican parties face significant questions after passing the replacement to HB2. The most significant is: what do the parties stand for? Many liberal groups like Equality NC have criticized Gov. Roy Cooper’s position on civil rights for his role in the compromise bill. Likewise, conservative organizations, like the NC Values Coalition, are left wondering if socially conservative principles are important to the Republican Party.
While former Gov. Pat McCrory was hurt by HB2, Republican legislative candidates benefitted from their support of the law, particularly in rural areas of the state. The ultimate result of the passage and repeal of HB2 will be that incumbent Democrats and Republicans face more primary challenges from their political left and right, respectively.
The legislative process: Both HB2 and its replacement, HB142, were passed without typical legislative processes, never going through hearings, debates and possible amendments. HB2 was filed and voted on during a one-day special session and signed into law that same night by McCrory in an unusual move designed to limit discussion. HB142, stripped an existing bill of its language and substituted the HB2 repeal language, while restricting the ability of legislators to make normal amendments before voting. The Founding Fathers designed the federal legislative process to be slow, so that members of Congress could fully debate potential laws and prevent bad legislation. Circumventing those processes gave us just that.
Political discourse: The policy debate around HB2, like much of what goes on in Washington, was loud and irrational. Both sides relied on unsubstantiated claims and overstated assertions to energize their respective bases. The left claimed HB2 was doing irreparable harm to the state’s economy. In a state with an annual Gross Domestic Product of over $500 billion, the recent Associated Press estimate of a $3.2 billion impact of HB2 is relatively small and many business publications, like Forbes, have claimed that North Carolina continues to be a top state for its business climate.
The right made a number of claims in support of HB2, including protecting young girls from being attacked in bathrooms and locker rooms, despite no documented cases of transgendered individuals ever committing such crimes. The most extreme argument advanced by the right was that, without HB2, gender would be fluid and allow men and women to routinely switch gender identities to suit their needs, such as in playing high school and college sports.
The LGBTQ community: The HB2 passage and repeal has set back LGBTQ rights in the state. Although North Carolina had no statewide law or constitutional amendment specifically protecting rights of people in this community from employment, housing or other forms of discrimination, the passage of HB2 removed the ability of local governments to afford these protections in their cities and counties. Furthermore, the HB142 repeal places a moratorium on such efforts at the local level through 2020. Even more damaging to the community, as a result of HB2, was the public scrutiny of its members and increased cases of bullying and targeting by those who disagreed with it.
Local government: HB2 has exacerbated the mistrust and attempt by the General Assembly to control city and county government. It also stripped local government of the ability to set minimum wage laws in their communities. The repeal of HB2 does not restore that ability and also raises the possibility that the General Assembly will further attempt to regulate local elections and limit the ability of localities to raise and spend money that it believes will benefit its residents.
With so many losers in the HB2 situation, it would be reasonable to expect that local and state elected officials to learn from the law’s lessons. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, it is likely that North Carolina will repeat its mistakes on other issue.