For all their struggles in subsequent years, North Carolina Democrats still haven’t felt the depths of futility that pervaded the party in the wake of the 2012 election. As I recently said to a colleague, the Donkey Party could not even afford to hold a full banquet “celebrating” their faction’s position, so they settled for a reception instead. Word was swirling that they might have to sell Goodwin House, their iconic headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. Adrift, they sought to recover a message that might make them a viable force in state politics once again.
Channeling decades of Democratic governors, the party reverted to education. There was some reason to believe it might get traction: Republicans had just inflicted what former Governor Bev Perdue called “generational” cuts to public schools and universities, and reverence for public education resides deep in the bones of most if not all North Carolinians. Four election cycles later, it is fair to say that education helped Democrats pick up seats in suburban Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, where families tend to be economically secure and it is easy to prioritize the future through public schools. But in the year 2021, Democrats still find themselves deep in the minority.
The party has tried to supplement its core education-oriented pitch with other issues that are largely the concern of Democratic activists. Governor Roy Cooper bet his budget strategy on Medicaid expansion, and it came to naught. Democrats talk incessantly about gerrymandering despite the fact that most voters have at best a vague idea of what redistricting reform is and care even less about it. These issues are of great moral urgency, but they clearly are not moving the needle in the districts Democrats need to reclaim a majority in the legislature. The reason for this is not hard to discern once you root out the haze of frustration.
Here is the fact: huge swathes of North Carolina have essentially been in Depression conditions for a generation now. Despite the state’s success at cultivating knowledge industries in the I-85 Piedmont Crescent and attracting tourists to the mountains and the beach, rural North Carolina increasingly finds itself without any avenues of economic opportunity. Farmers have gone from one crop to another trying to replace the prosperity of the golden leaf; padlocked factory gates in the Piedmont have just gotten rustier; poor people in Appalachia and the so-called Black Belt have remained as destitute as they have always been. Thirty-one counties are losing population. And even in prosperous urban areas, pockets of acute poverty exist that are all but invisible to state leaders.
In the face of this desperation, voters want answers on how to get a job and provide for their families. And the fact is that Democrats offer them almost literally nothing. The state party’s message is almost entirely focused on education, Medicaid expansion, redistricting, and, when Republicans get truly crazy, defensive maneuvers on guns and religion. Note that this is not a criticism of “identity politics”; when Republicans attack marginalized groups, Democrats can and must be the political firewall helping to protect them. I follow North Carolina politics extremely closely, and I literally could not tell you what the Democratic Party believes about our state economy.
In the final analysis, North Carolina Democrats are not speaking to the concerns of economically stressed North Carolinians. Medicaid expansion would benefit these people, but it’s not a substitute for the jobs they need and the dignity they could earn in the workforce. This paucity of economic messaging makes Democrats look out of touch to working-class whites who already distrust the party, and demoralizes the working-class minorities, especially men, whom Democrats need to turn out if they are to win in this highly polarized state. Instead, Democrats talk about things they have talked about for a decade or more and lose election after election. What their economic message should be is a complicated question, but that they need one, and now, is simply beyond dispute.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.