Like a New Bern forest fire, the accumulated tinder of the Democratic Party has combusted into a raging wall of corrosion. Since our defeat last fall, several factions have emerged to air resentments over the party’s path. The roots of the conflict extend into the red clay beneath our cities and the sandy silt of the East.

For all the publicity around Chairman Voller, the populists will eventually reconcile with the pragmatists. The divide between rural traditionalists and metro reformers, by contrast, runs much deeper. Each faction feels fervently that the other side’s vision is inviable. Although both make valid points, the shortcomings of their arguments deserve more examination.

For their part, Democratic Young Turks dismiss the Machine at their peril. Perhaps because many of them are new to the state, they seem to fixate on dissatisfaction at the expense of the Old Guard’s strengths. Ironically, Marc Basnight himself, the villain of the reform narrative, deserves credit for a lot of what liberal professionals enjoy. To take one example: Without Basnight’s “porky” highways, their Priuses would sport fewer OBX stickers.

Rural Democrats are guilty of ingratitude in equal measure. Too many of them insist small towns are the victims of “big-city” indifference. This argument contains major flaws, for if there is one thing Democrats have not neglected, rural development is it. The Easley Administration, for instance, seemed to base its whole economic policy on far-flung industrial parks. That’s why much of Eastern NC feels like a white elephant graveyard.

Even so, the dispute should be litigated. Rural areas correctly point out that they are the face of economic dislocation. To write them off, a prospect some metropolitan dwellers seem to relish, bespeaks Republican-esque callousness. On the metropolitan side, reformists are right that the Machine grew insular and took its emerging geographical base for granted. They should also note that our worst economic emergency is urban poverty, which traditional Democrats totally ignored, if they were even aware of it.

Democrats have until 2014 to work these disagreements out. By then, we need a unified, broadly progressive message that is flexible enough for different regions. Furthermore, our regional disunity already serves as a hidden Republican weapon. Thugs like Phil Berger aggressively demagogue cultural issues, a potent tactic where social institutions are in decline. In cities, Pat McCrory won some votes just by not appearing oblivious to urban concerns. It’s a pincer strategy, and Democrats must amputate the claws.

As another unity candidate put it, “the things that bind us together are greater than the things that tear us apart.” Obama’s words retain their wisdom, especially in the Democratic party. And especially in our beleaguered but promising state.

Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.

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