When Governor Bev Perdue took office after winning election by about three points, observers widely considered her to have a “weak mandate.” Never mind that she had outperformed Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 32 years. Because her race against Pat McCrory fell within a 4% margin, her authority to govern was seen as preemptively diminished.
And truth be told, she showed humility in office. While a bit inconsistent, she resisted calls by the left wing of her party to enact higher tax rates on wealthy North Carolinians. She signed off on a tax increase overwhelmingly slanted toward regressive sources such as consumer purchases and cigarette and liquor levies. Though she signed several landmark progressive bills, none of them seemed outlandish given that the state had just voted for an African American liberal for president. In all, she showed impressive restraint.
Years later, her nemeses in the Republican legislative caucus exhibit no such doubts about their legitimacy–even though they have never had the electoral success that Perdue and previous Democratic governors enjoyed. Again and again since 2010, the Republican ticket has ground out razor-thin victories in the popular vote. In 2018, they lost the popular vote to Democrats. In 2020, state House Republicans ran behind Donald Trump. Yet because the maps heavily favor Republican majorities, they’ve acted like they had a sweeping mandate to transform the state.
The scale of policy change that Republicans have enacted is breathtaking and well known. Moreover, it has never had broad support in the state. Polls consistently find that GOP policies like HB2, restrictive abortion laws, and underfunded public education draw support from less than half than the state’s voters, and often considerably less than that. But Republicans have blazed ahead year after year with what hard-line Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) called the most conservative agenda of any legislature in the country.
Republicans recognize only their own base as the source of political legitimacy. Very conservative white voters in rural areas have repeatedly allowed legislators to sail through primaries and win pro forma general elections in gerrymandered districts. That’s enough for Republicans to believe they have a mandate. The opinions of the 50% (more than that in 2018) of the state that bitterly opposes almost everything Republicans have done, mean nothing to a party that long ago abjured representative democracy in this state.
It’s a scary situation when the state’s governing majority presses ahead with an agenda that does not have the blessings of the people over whom they rule. What this means is that Republicans have broken the compact with citizens that elected officials are supposed to respect in a constitutional democracy. In that sense, we have lost the democratic promise that generations of North Carolinians sacrificed (often with blood) to achieve. Mandates come from majorities of the people, not hyper-ideological niche constituencies. But that lesson is lost on the reactionaries running North Carolina.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.