The redistricting debate in North Carolina brings into stark focus the rural-urban divide in the state. In his defense of legislative districts that give Republicans a veto proof majority in the state, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger argues that Democrats have abandoned the principles that made them competitive in rural counties. While some of his critique is valid, he places the blame on changes within the Democratic Party while ignoring the changes in rural North Carolina.
Berger argues that Democrats in North Carolina used to be “pro-education but also pro-business, pro-gun and pro-life.” He says that Democrats have left their cultural sensibilities to become more like the national party that is aligned with “powerful special interests like big national labor unions, far-left environmentalists and the abortion lobby.” What Berger ignores is the changes to the state while overstating the state party’s adherence to any ideological orthodoxy.
Over the last 30 years, rural North Carolina has taken a drubbing. Trade deals, supported overwhelmingly by Republicans and reluctantly by Democrats, sent many of our manufacturing jobs and industries to other countries. Since then, almost all of the growth in the state has been in a handful of counties along the I-85/I-40 corridors while rural counties lost population, growing older, poorer and less educated.
At the same time, a wave of Hispanic immigrants moved into the once thriving small towns and rural crossroads, changing the racial and cultural make up of the communities. Instead of welcoming these newcomers as a source of commerce and revenue, many residents saw them as a threat, economically and culturally. They were Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region, spoke a different language and took jobs that were increasingly in short supply.
As rural counties declined, they faced new societal challenges like rising crime and drug epidemics. Meth labs were common long before the highly publicized opioid epidemic. Last year, three rural North Carolina counties, Nash, Halifax and Robeson, were listed with among the highest murder rates in the nation.
Independent country folks have always had firearms for both sport and protection. Growing up, I didn’t know any family that did not have guns, but I didn’t know any that had assault weapons or walked around town armed to the teeth. The National Rifle Association and the gun lobby exploited fears with a massive and ongoing public relations campaign, urging citizens to arm themselves while claiming the government, at the urging of Democrats, was coming for their guns. It’s never happened but it sure made gun manufactures rich and gun owners paranoid. It also gave the Republicans another cultural wedge issue, dividing rural and urban North Carolina even further.
While Democrats may not have adequately responded to these changes, Republicans responded by exploiting the fears with demagoguery. Any immigration reform other than deportation became “amnesty.” “Illegals” were to blame for the loss of jobs and the increase in crime. Democrats became anti-gun for advocating background checks and common sense reforms like limiting high-capacity clips.
On social issues, Democrats have always been more progressive than much of the rural population. In the past, they navigated that terrain by highlighting economic opportunities and education while agreeing to disagree on more divisive topics. Today, though, in the minds of many rural voters Democrats define themselves as the pro-choice, pro-equality, pro-immigration party while offering no overarching economic message with broader appeal. That said, Democrats should maintain their commitment to justice and equality and defend the rights of people on the margins of society. They just need to lead with a more inclusive platform.
Democrats in North Carolina have always been and still are pro-business. Under their control, North Carolina became an economic powerhouse and one of the fastest growing states in the nation. They accomplished that feat with a balanced approach that protected our water and our air while making the state a destination for tourists and businesses. We’ve kept our mountain ridge lines clear and our beaches clean and accessible. Families and businesses come here more for our amenities and quality of life than our tax structure. That formula is under threat by the Republicans who would strip away protections in the interest of short-term profits.
The support for Republicans in rural North Carolina is based on fear of a changing state in the evolving national economy. Republicans have exploited that fear without offering any solutions. The Republican message to rural people is “Democrats are going to take your guns, give your towns to immigrants and force you to use bathrooms with pedophiles.” Meanwhile, they’ll let the free-market continue to erode the economic viability of small towns while offering little support to help them compete for jobs and business in the 21st century economy. In the absence of an economic alternative, fear wins out.
Berger’s right that Democrats need to do a better job at reaching rural voters. He’s wrong, though, to believe Republicans deserve a veto-proof majority in both Houses of the legislature. Districts should reflect the changing population of the state, which is becoming increasingly urban.