The “conservative revolution” of the NCGA has been portrayed as an ideological project. Philosophically rigid legislators imposing a clear vision on a messy world, with chaos as consequence. This may have been a fair read in 2013, but since then the NCGA’s work has become less intellectualized and more nostalgic.
The Republican majority is comprised of a certain type of citizen—white, conservative and rural. There is little diversity. Moreover, most of them are politically amateurish, motivated more by what the critic Lionel Trilling called “irritable mental gestures” than by the philosophical rigor of Art Pope. Lacking clear goals, they are trying to use the power of the legislature to resurrect a discredited way of life.
One sinister through line in all NCGOP initiatives has been the restoration of racial hierarchies. Voter ID was an attempt to defuse growing black political power. School vouchers facilitate the return of lily-white schools. Welfare cuts take money from a disproportionately nonwhite population and refund them to the wealthy. And the legislature’s action to protect Rebel monuments will keep our vicious past on visual display.
The days of rampant oppression took place when economic progress was rudimentary. This, too, seems to be something that Republicans long for. The Majority has assaulted our institutions of innovation: The Biofuels Center (eliminated), the Biotechnology Center (partially crippled), energy research at universities (defunded, if the Senate gets its way). These institutions represent an acceptance that all our counties must move on from dying industries. Reactionaries cannot countenance that.
The legislature pushes this program not in spite, but because of the headlines it generates. Their message is this: If you want to live in a place that is open and pluralistic, go somewhere else. That’s why they tolerate Larry Pittman’s screeds. That’s why they passed HB2. Ultimately, they seek the attrition of residents who do not think like them. Leaving behind those who are content to live in the past.
To fans of modernity, this is highly distressing. But take heart. The rest of society continues to evolve, and it asserts its will against the legislature with regularity. The NCGA loses in the courts, suffers blows from the corporate community, and discredits itself in the eyes of public opinion. It’s one state legislature against the world, and the world is the heavy favorite.