North Carolina’s Government is Competitive Authoritarianism

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Politics | 5 comments

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.


  1. Matthew Eisley

    I’m an independent centrist who favors redistricting reform and ranked-choice voting — as well as campaign-finance reform and giving independent candidates equal ballot access. Republican Party leaders certainly have maximized their power in our pink-to-purple state.

    But in gerrymandering, North Carolina’s Republicans have merely perfected what Democrats pioneered and exploited ruthlessly for decades. Democrats here wrote the playbook, and Republicans updated it.

    I think it’s fair to ask: During their century of essentially one-party rule, why did Democrats not reform redistricting when they could? Presumably because it sustained and reinforced their political power, just as today for their opponents. This makes their high-horse complaints a bit much to take.

  2. Joshua Horn

    According to FiveThirtyEight’s overall analysis, the redistricting nationwide for the 2022 House districts flipped six competitive seats to favor the Democrats. So does this mean that in the states where that was done, the Democrats have changed from their forms of government from democracy to “competitive authoritarianism”?

    • Jim Ray

      You didn’t provide a link to the 538 piece and a few minutes of googling didn’t find it, so I can’t address your whataboutism directly, but the piece here outlines many areas in which North Carolina has clearly backslided on Democracy beyond just our horribly gerrymandered U.S. house districts.

      Gerrymandering at both the congressional and especially the state legislative level are pernicious and persistent. North Carolina is a state where legislators, as the saying goes, pick their constituents rather then the other way around.

      This is particularly galling at the state level where the legislature has done everything from strip the governor of his executive powers to use the state’s exemplary public college system as a battleground for the right’s culture wars, with little fear of reprisal. Republican don’t have to be responsive to a majority of voters because they know they’ll win regardless of what they do — and in North Carolina, like other Republican led states, what they’ve decided to do is fight petty and regressive wars that animate their most ardent and right-wing constituents.

      And then there’s the judiciary, which just decided to rehear a voting rights case that had been already been decided simply because the balance of the court changed and they want to swing the outcome towards, unsurprisingly, more single party, anti-democratic rule.

      So while it may be true that on balance 6 of 435 seats did shift to blue, the powers against democracy in North Carolina are pretty obvious and worrying if you care at all about what actual democracy means.

      The solutions to this are pretty straightforward. First and foremost, legislators shouldn’t be drawing congressional districts. California, for example, uses an independent citizens redistricting committee, which seems like a pretty good start.

      Next, end first-past-the-post elections in favor of something like ranked choice voting. This typically allows more moderate candidates, or even third parties, some leeway and tends to sideline the kind of extremists that are able to win a primary and then cruise to victory in a gerrymandered general.

      The public should have some means of responding to the legislature when it becomes as hopelessly corrupt as it has in places like NC and Wisconsin. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that neither of those states have any form of citizen initiative process and both states have effectively enshrined one party rule despite being effectively split politically. Unfortunately, it’s far too simple for direct democracy to be gamed by special interests (California’s Prop 13 is the gold standard for this kind of abuse) so a proposition or initiative system should have guardrails like limiting funding to individual citizens and a high threshold for making it to the ballot.

      And then we can go further still: why does NC have a bicameral legislature, for example? Do we really need a state senate and a house? Simplify the legislature, expand the numbers, and bring it closer to the people it allegedly represents. While we’re at it, expand the size of the U.S. House as well — it’s been stuck at 435 for over 100 years. If the size of the house kept up with population growth it would be much harder to gerrymander, a win for democracy.

    • Marjorie Storch

      Right now the NC Congressional districts more fairly represent the actual votes cast (about a 50-50 split) but the districts for the NC legislature (House and Senate) still remain gerrymandered so a minority of voters elect a majority of state representatives. Still a lot of work to do to create a fair, responsive democracy! The conservative Supreme Court that ruled that money = free speech was wrong. How about getting private $$ out of politics altogether or limit donations to an amount = to the hourly federal minimum wage from only individuals who live in the district (or state or nation depending on the office)?

    • cocodog

      Horn, did you read the article, before you commented? Although I, like Jim Ray was unable to find any such findings by Nate Silver, if anything a number Republicans lost their seats due to backing the Supreme Courts reversing Roe v Wade. I think, Jones made a very good point, Politicians should not pick their voters, voters pick them. Gerrymandering, or cracking and packing is a major threat to democracy. Moreover, appears to be the only way to keep them on the public payroll.

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