UNC scholars’ finding that North Carolina had ceased to be a democracy was met from conservatives by a mixture of incredulity and simple guffaws. Even some moderate commentators wondered how the study’s authors could seriously contend that an American state had departed from the system of government that sits at the heart of our national identity. This disbelief was historically naive. But now thanks to scholarship by leading political scientists we have a moniker for the deformed representation that North Carolina has acquired since 2020: competitive authoritarianism.

That our state has undergone severe democratic regression is beyond questioning. After years of gerrymandering, observers take it nearly for granted that Republicans will hold majorities far in excess of what they win in the popular vote. In 2020, House Republican candidates won barely more than a clean 50% of the votes cast by North Carolinians but attained a majority just one seat short of veto-proof strength. Because our deeply flawed governing architecture grants near-omnipotent authority to the legislative branch, a disproportionate share of state power has accrued to an undemocratically formed majority caucus.

Yet the argument that NC was not a democracy still seemed to unsettle many informed observers. This was the result of an overemphasis on surface-level perception. In fact, elections do continue to proceed every two years in this state, however distorted their outcomes may be. In addition, we have the remnants of an independent judiciary despite virulent attacks on judicial autonomy by the GOP, and the governor gets to set some policy. Surely all these facts indicate that democracy is functioning in North Carolina, correct?

No, they do not. Because under the theory of competitive authoritarianism, a polity may maintain the window dressing of democracy even after slipping into the netherworld of authoritarian rule. What matters in a democracy is not whether the husks of democratic institutions continue to stand. It is, rather, the legitimate possibility that voters will be able to replace their rulers with preferred alternatives, and reshape public policy to accord with the popular will.

On these crucial criteria, the new North Carolina has failed miserably. Indeed, Republicans have tended to narrowly win the popular vote. But one two separate occasions, Democrats have won the popular vote for either Congress or Assembly and come out with a small fraction of the seats they should have earned. It is, effectively, foreordained that Republicans will have a vast advantage in any legislative election due to rigged electoral structures. And the Republicans so elected have imposed a policy agenda upon the state that polling shows North Carolinians do not support. For example, 55% of North Carolina voters expressed opposition to HB2; the author of the bill was later elected to Congress from a gerrymandered district.

So, we have a system in which a party with strong authoritarian leanings has arrogated a bulletproof majority that it uses to enact policies at odds with the public’s beliefs. This is competitive authoritarianism in a nutshell. North Carolina long stood as a slave society and an apartheid state, becoming democratic only in the 1960s. The fight that made us a democracy will have to be fought again.


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