Redistricting and the rural-urban divide

by | Aug 30, 2017 | Editor's Blog, NC Politics, Redistricting | 8 comments

The redistricting debate in North Carolina brings into stark focus the rural-urban divide in the state. In his defense of legislative districts that give Republicans a veto proof majority in the state, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger argues that Democrats have abandoned the principles that made them competitive in rural counties. While some of his critique is valid, he places the blame on changes within the Democratic Party while ignoring the changes in rural North Carolina.

Berger argues that Democrats in North Carolina used to be “pro-education but also pro-business, pro-gun and pro-life.” He says that Democrats have left their cultural sensibilities to become more like the national party that is aligned with “powerful special interests like big national labor unions, far-left environmentalists and the abortion lobby.” What Berger ignores is the changes to the state while overstating the state party’s adherence to any ideological orthodoxy.

Over the last 30 years, rural North Carolina has taken a drubbing. Trade deals, supported overwhelmingly by Republicans and reluctantly by Democrats, sent many of our manufacturing jobs and industries to other countries. Since then, almost all of the growth in the state has been in a handful of counties along the I-85/I-40 corridors while rural counties lost population, growing older, poorer and less educated.

At the same time, a wave of Hispanic immigrants moved into the once thriving small towns and rural crossroads, changing the racial and cultural make up of the communities. Instead of welcoming these newcomers as a source of commerce and revenue, many residents saw them as a threat, economically and culturally. They were Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region, spoke a different language and took jobs that were increasingly in short supply.

As rural counties declined, they faced new societal challenges like rising crime and drug epidemics. Meth labs were common long before the highly publicized opioid epidemic. Last year, three rural North Carolina counties, Nash, Halifax and Robeson, were listed with among the highest murder rates in the nation.

Independent country folks have always had firearms for both sport and protection. Growing up, I didn’t know any family that did not have guns, but I didn’t know any that had assault weapons or walked around town armed to the teeth. The National Rifle Association and the gun lobby exploited fears with a massive and ongoing public relations campaign, urging citizens to arm themselves while claiming the government, at the urging of Democrats, was coming for their guns. It’s never happened but it sure made gun manufactures rich and gun owners paranoid. It also gave the Republicans another cultural wedge issue, dividing rural and urban North Carolina even further.

While Democrats may not have adequately responded to these changes, Republicans responded by exploiting the fears with demagoguery. Any immigration reform other than deportation became “amnesty.” “Illegals” were to blame for the loss of jobs and the increase in crime. Democrats became anti-gun for advocating background checks and common sense reforms like limiting high-capacity clips.

On social issues, Democrats have always been more progressive than much of the rural population. In the past, they navigated that terrain by highlighting economic opportunities and education while agreeing to disagree on more divisive topics. Today, though, in the minds of many rural voters Democrats define themselves as the pro-choice, pro-equality, pro-immigration party while offering no overarching economic message with broader appeal. That said, Democrats should maintain their commitment to justice and equality and defend the rights of people on the margins of society. They just need to lead with a more inclusive platform.

Democrats in North Carolina have always been and still are pro-business. Under their control, North Carolina became an economic powerhouse and one of the fastest growing states in the nation. They accomplished that feat with a balanced approach that protected our water and our air while making the state a destination for tourists and businesses. We’ve kept our mountain ridge lines clear and our beaches clean and accessible. Families and businesses come here more for our amenities and quality of life than our tax structure. That formula is under threat by the Republicans who would strip away protections in the interest of short-term profits.

The support for Republicans in rural North Carolina is based on fear of a changing state in the evolving national economy. Republicans have exploited that fear without offering any solutions. The Republican message to rural people is “Democrats are going to take your guns, give your towns to immigrants and force you to use bathrooms with pedophiles.” Meanwhile, they’ll let the free-market continue to erode the economic viability of small towns while offering little support to help them compete for jobs and business in the 21st century economy. In the absence of an economic alternative, fear wins out.

Berger’s right that Democrats need to do a better job at reaching rural voters. He’s wrong, though, to believe Republicans deserve a veto-proof majority in both Houses of the legislature. Districts should reflect the changing population of the state, which is becoming increasingly urban.


  1. Mooser

    The whole “county” thing has become a Republican talking point, both here in NC and nationally. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen those memes about Trump winning thousands of counties while Clinton only won like 50 or whatever it is, as if all counties are the same. Those memes are usually accompanied by ruby red maps where all the Trump counties stand out. I don’t know how to successfully fight back against that meme! It take too long to explain that a county is not a standardized unit, and that Los Angeles County has 10 million people in it, which is more that the total population of about 40 states. I guess the best slogan would have to be something like “People vote – NOT empty land,” Here in NC, the 7 most populous counties are home to almost 40% of the population. Why should small rural counties get to have more say in our government than the counties where more people live? It’s completely undemocratic.

  2. Lee Mortimer

    Focusing too much on Democrats’ lagging support among rural and small town voters, and ways to shore it up, may be missing a larger point. The real issue of the urban-rural divide is that Phil Berger and GOP chairman Dallas Woodhouse have declared that urban votes count for less than rural and small town votes.

    The opening salvo came at an Aug. 4 legislative redistricting hearing when Woodhouse asserted, “Democrats have a geography problem” because “they carried only 26 of 100 counties in statewide elections in 2016.” Of course, that fails to take into account that increased Democratic support in urban and metropolitan counties have kept the state closely divided between the two parties.

    Berger followed in his Senate floor seat declaring that if Democrats can’t compete among rural and small town voters, they have no legitimate claim to parity in the General Assembly and Congress. If Republicans “carry” 75% of counties in North Carolina, that entitles them to keep a super-majority of legislative and congressional seats. And thus — “It’s not a gerrymander,” Berger repeated eight times in his speech.

    So, your concluding statement is correct: “Districts should reflect the changing population of the state, which is becoming increasingly urban.” The challenge for Democrats and for redistricting reform advocates will be to come up with a formulation that counters the Democrats’ “geography problem” that Republicans have correctly identified.

  3. Jay Ligon

    The new maps are not about rural or urban. The Republicans have deployed map technology to take political advantage and to dominate the State of North Carolina for as long as they can get away with it. When the courts ordered Republicans to redraw the maps to remove the obvious racial bias, there was never any hope that the GOP would produce maps that would produce free and fair elections. When asked why North Carolina has 3 Democrats in the House of Representatives out of 13, Republicans said because we couldn’t figure out how to allow Democrats only 2 or 1. North Carolina’s Republicans have learned how to control who gets to vote for whom. They choose us; we no longer choose them.

    “Assuming a statewide uniform swing in the vote, in order for there to be a Republican majority in the House, Republicans will only need a statewide vote of 45.7 percent. By contrast, Democrats would need 54.8 percent of the vote to get a majority in the House.”

    The new maps take a 10% advantage over Democrats using computer technology that can be run from your laptop. One of the leading programs is called Maptitude. Maptitude along personal information gleaned from Big Data allows the party in power to draw precise maps calibrated to maximize minority representation and minimize the impact of majorities. They can include or exclude a dog house if it has a Democrat in it.

    This is the singular achievement of the Republican Party since 2010 which has allowed the ultra-conservative tail to wag the American dog.

    The message matters little; the guarantee of free elections is irrelevant; the redistricting boundary lines prevent democracy as has been proven every two years since 2010.

    The power to impose control over the state’s population obtained through a reasonably simple computer program, like Simcity, is too great a temptation. It is like asking Gollum to hand over “My precious.” It won’t happen without intervention from the courts or some other impartial body.

    The deployment of the same technology, by the way, could produce fair and free elections with the same precision that they now produce Republican landslides.

  4. PJ Childress

    I usually just face-palm but this latest Bergerism has me apoplectic. … “powerful special interests like big national labor unions, far-left environmentalists and the abortion lobby.” “Powerful”?! Really? Labor unions lost any real power long ago; in NC, e.g., the percentage of workers who are members of, or represented by, unions combined is less than 10%.

    Even more absurd is calling “far-left environmentalists” powerful. What even IS that? Greenpeace? Those guys that chain themselves to trees? Seriously?

    And then we have … the “abortion lobby.” No one is actually “lobbying for abortion”. NO ONE. That type of creature only exists in the most depraved of fanatical minds. Stop it, Mr Berger; just stop it.

    The phrase “false equivalency,” quite fashionable just now for rather painful reasons, applies here. And yes, Democrats at the national level do have some serious messaging issues. But this so-called ‘argument’ is preposterous. Mr Berger continues to show contempt for the people of this state; this, too, he really ought to stop.

    • Joe Beamish

      I was going to comment about Berger’s idiotic statement, but you said it for me. What charlatans the Repugnicans are.

    • Troy

      Indeed. Each premise you identified is ludicrous and false on its face; to those with the ability to consider all facts before coming to a conclusion. But those things identified and pointed out by Berger, while not being believed for one second by one segment of the population, is taken as gospel, chapter and verse, by another. As pointed out by others already commenting, there seems to be a brain drain in the rural parts of this state. And for some reason these folks seem most susceptible to Republican dogma and myth.

      Certainly they’re lies. The politics of lies. Say it enough times and they’ll believe it. Keep saying it and it will be true. Just last night the latest volley was fired in this quest to keep power and pollute the waters of truth; “lowering the taxes on corporations is good for the middle class and working people.”

      The only thing that I’m convinced of at this point is, Republicans aren’t good legislators. They need to go away. They are too ‘self’ oriented to be of benefit to large populations. Not entirely though. There needs to be enough of them to provide levity to the debate…but not in lies, innuendo, and alternate facts. Of course, they know they can’t win any other way than by hook or by crook.

  5. Peter Lindstrom

    I don’t think Phil Simms has a valid point at all & while there is much good in your analysis, Simms’ full statement makes it clear he wants to undo the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds vs. Sims, where the High Court ruled that NC’s post-Civil War/segregationist redistricting system not only violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court went further & declared NC had to institute a system of “one citizen/one vote-proportional representation.” Simms, of course, will deny this publicly, but any excuse to give rural area more power is a return to the pre-Civil Rights system before 1964.

    It is also important to note that in 1835, the NC General Assembly was one of the most progressive in America because they created a body with 120 legislators & 50 Senators, back when the population was 390,000—that ensured representation on the basis of population, not regions. But over time, that was lost & written out of NC’s rulebook and today, with over 10 million people, the Assembly is too small to adequately represent anyone, but I know advocating expanding the lower house to 200 & the Senate 70 to defuse Gerrymandering while boosting representation among communities is a lost cause.

  6. S Mills

    Well said. One thing not said was that a couple generations ago rural people sent their kids off to college or the military and after a few years they came back to good middle class jobs and wages in their communities. For a variety of reasons, ambitious and talented people leave rural NC in their late teens and early twenties and the vast majority don’t come back. The middle class is withering away in rural NC leaving, leaving behind a population of mostly poor and poorly educated people.

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