When UNC announced its hire of Nikole Hannah-Jones, my first response was not excitement but “well, let’s hope for the best.” For anyone who had followed the antics of UNC’s political overseers since 2011 could tell that a smooth implementation of the hire was unlikely. Such a prediction was correct. After months of damning publicity, UNC belatedly and ineffectually tried to fulfill their promise to Hannah-Jones, and she declined, taking her talents to Howard University and leaving the University of North Carolina devastated. The state’s conservative leadership would not tolerate a transgression of their ruling conservative doctrines.
It’s been a similar story of control-freakishness along nearly every front of public life for a decade. Republicans, long protesting that they believed in Thoreau’s dictum of the superiority of limited government, have intruded into the affairs of every public entity they could target. Most prominent among these recipients of legislative abuse are local government and education, each the subject of many paeans to decentralization. The GOP is building a policy empire.
Attacks on local government began almost immediately after the GOP took control in 2010. Senator Phil Berger sent a menacing letter to local officials threatening to reverse previous property annexations if they did not fall in line behind the conservative agenda. After gaining a trifecta of House, Senate and Governorship, Republicans intervened to make Durham approve an unpopular, environmentally harmful development on the outskirts of the city. The GOP preempted Wake County’s plan to clean up Falls Lake with regulation, imposing in their place a cockamamie plan to use whirligig machines manufactured by a key Republican donor. Policy imperialism came face to face with bigotry when HB2 prohibited local anti-discrimination ordinances aimed at protecting the LGBTQ community.
As with local government, Republicans have sought to vitiate any progressive tendencies in the state’s education system. The GOP is “united,” in the words of the consistently deferential Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, in its determination to ban “critical race theory” from the state’s public schools. North Carolina Republicans’ favorite showman Mark Robinson seems to have kicked off this obsession with “indoctrination.” And their invasion of public schools pales in comparison to a decade-long attempt to reinvent the University of North Carolina as a conservative citadel. Since the Supreme Court banned prayer in schools almost 60 years ago, the GOP’s evangelical base has viewed public education as a cesspool of secular-socialist indoctrination. NCGOPers are giving their core supporters the culture war they want.
When they have not directly intervened to dictate right-wing policy, Republicans have used blackmail to get the outcomes they want. Years of punitive smackdowns have taught local government to tread lightly when considering policies that might offend our all-powerful legislators. Nowhere is this chilled atmosphere more vivid or more tragic than in the aftermath of HB2. Despite the ban on nondiscrimination ordinances departing the books, the state’s largest cities dare not pass new protections lest the GOP get angry and impose another devastating prohibition. Ten years of bullying by the machers on Jones Street has created an atmosphere where North Carolina localities understand progressivism is verboten.
The GOP’s quest for absolute dominance is nothing less than policy imperialism. They have intruded upon areas of governments that are beyond their rightful prerogatives, conquered opposing political forces, and imposed a new regime against the will of people who were previously making policy along lines that represented the sentiments of the constituencies they represent. Republicans have made enormous progress toward making a 50-50 liberal-conservative state into a down-the-line MAGA utopia. They’re not done yet.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.