Going back centuries, North Carolina has had a split personality regarding basic democratic principles. One side, embodied most vividly by the secessionists who followed other Southern states out of the union in protest against Abraham Lincoln’s election, regarded democracy as contingent upon the victory of white Southern traditionalism. A countervailing tradition held that democracy should be respected even when one’s own side came up short on election day. This bifurcated personality engaged in an internal push and pull until the anti-democratic side fully triumphed with the White Supremacy Campaigns of 1898 and 1900, after which the ideology of white partisan supremacy reigned supreme for three quarters of a century.
The rejectionist tradition was forged in blood. In 1898, the Cape Fear white establishment overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington, NC, in a violent coup that left as many 60 Black people dead. After this maelstrom, anti-democracy forces could ply their trade more peacefully. And they did so repeatedly throughout the era of the Solid South. Democratic boss Furnifold Simmons purloined a gubernatorial election from moderate O. Max Gardner, and scarcely a decade later Gardner himself would employ his machine to steal another election from the progressive insurgent Ralph McDonald. Feeling a bit of remorse, the Democratic legislature banned vote stealing in primary elections but left open the possibility of the doing the same in November with a wink and a nod.
Because this was the era of unchallenged Democratic dominance in North Carolina, the Republican Party seldom got to share in the fun of democratic denial. But when the tides shifted Republicans joined this dark tradition with gusto. It took until 2010 for Republicans to attempt the imposition of one-party dictatorship on the voters, but they became extraordinarily creative at squelching democracy in the state. For the last decade, they have experimented variously with capricious gerrymandering, voter suppression legislation and constitutional amendments, the institution of partisan judicial elections, and other machinations to rig elections across North Carolina.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that North Carolina Republicans would grab the opportunity to steal a presidential election with more gusto than the GOP delegations of almost any other state. Seven out of the state’s eight Republican congresspeople joined Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Madison Cawthorn was the first congressperson to put forward the idea. And others made remarkably irresponsible comments that contributed to the climate of paranoia that reach its horrifying apogee with the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Only Patrick McHenry declined to join Trump’s challenge, more likely out of loyalty to the Republican leadership than any belief in democracy.
These congresspeople’s embrace of authoritarianism shocks the conscience, but only people blind to history would consider Republican efforts a new outrage. The white majority in North Carolina politics has been thwarting democracy for over 120 years. In Southern history, continuity rules the day more than change. What Madison Cawhtorn led merely reflected a long, ignoble tradition that still has legs.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.