History’s burden is particularly heavy in America’s Southern states. You could even say that the Old Confederacy is haunted by what its white people have done to its Black people, by the legacy of a slave society never fully redeemed. The state of North Carolina is feeling the weight of past mistakes in a profound way during this era of democratic regression. Its constitutional structure, revised over the centuries but consistent in a damaging way, serves as the vessel for the rise of an authoritarian state.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” goes Lord Acton’s phrase that has become a cliche. But for all its triteness, this aphorism holds truth in a state whose constitution gives inordinate power to a single branch of government. The legislative branch in North Carolina has held almost all of the power ever since the former province’s establishment as an American state. There is a dire lack of check-and-balance accountability in our governmental architecture, and it is enabling a right-wing legislature to use its pervasive influence as the sharpest edge of the wedge in an assault on liberal democracy.
North Carolina’s slanted institutions have dubious roots. In the early 1770s, colonial elites felt aggrieved at the infringements of Royal Governor William Tryon on what they perceived to be their rights. In fairness, lower-class whites in the backcountry shared these resentments, but it was the slavocracy in Eastern North Carolina that reified their anger in the form of a constitution that gave almost no power to the governor. In its 1776 iteration, the state constitution created a governorship elected by the legislature with a one-year term. He (and I choose that pronoun intentionally) was essentially a figurehead.
The preponderance of power would instead rest with the legislature. And the fact is that our legislature has never been particularly democratic. For the first several generations of North Carolina, a fight raged over redistributing seats from the slaveholding and wealthy east to western counties that were the homes of poor whites. When that inequity was mostly rectified, democracy was compromised again by gerrymandering, a blight that has reached its nadir in the era of Project RedMap and the relentless efforts of GOP cartographers to eradicate Black and Democratic Party influence on the government of a 50-50 state.
Combine the exorbitant power our constitution affords to the legislature, with the invidious force of gerrymandering, and you have a system of government conducive to authoritarian rule. Legislators have all of the influence on redistricting, local bills that have neutered democracy everywhere from Asheville to Sanford, and the fountain of liberalism, UNC-Chapel Hill. They have created a system that makes their majority control all but impervious to voters; thus, they have guaranteed ruling authority over the state. And they can use that power to effect untrammeled abuses on what is supposed to be a democratic polity.
What legislators don’t have, they are trying to take away. The state Senate’s budget contains further attacks on the authority of our Democratic governor and attorney general, and that merely comes on the heels of years of infringements on the other branches. If voters had honored the tradition of a veto-less governor when a constitutional amendment to create a veto came up under Governor Jim Hunt, Governor Cooper wouldn’t even be able to stop these assaults on his powers. We have a nearly all-powerful legislature that clearly thirsts for absolute authority unimpeded by any checks and balances whatsoever.
The founders of North Carolina had much wisdom–part of which was creating the University of North Carolina. But their myopia in the area of checks and balances is costing us dearly nearly a quarter-millennium after they mistakenly gave the legislature too much power. North Carolinians who want to live in a democracy shouldn’t just accept this inequity machine. Just as Republicans put constitutional amendments on the ballot to cap income taxes and mandate voter ID, democracy advocates should seek to shore up the executive and judicial branches if they do not want their fellow citizens trapped under the depredations of a legislative cartel.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.