What did Donald Rumsfeld have in common with Randall Ramsey? Not much on the surface of things, one being a two-time Secretary of Defense and the other a provincial boat salesman who may need some introduction even to the well informed readers of this blog. But Ramsey, the Chair of the Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina, shares with “Rummy” an ability to wreck institutions with impunity. Rumsfeld’s crimes were graver and on a vastly larger scale, no doubt, but the under-educated Beaufort, NC businessman presiding over UNC has done enough damage to be notable. Their shared lack of accountability is part of a coherent story of decline.
Over the past 20 years, America–and North Carolina–have careened from one disaster to another. Nine-eleven was followed by the Great Recession was followed by Trump by the pandemic. North Carolina’s signature industries effectively collapsed under Rumsfeld’s boss, which helped spark a mass rural revolt that powered bitter reactionaries into control of the state’s all-powerful legislature. UNC was more than collateral damage; it was an intentionally chosen and systematically assaulted target of right-wingers who had long resented its liberalizing influence. In both cases a major theme was institutional failure. Our government has failed to serve the people at levels high and low.
And in the face of this comprehensive inadequacy the people could do little or nothing. Our institutions ensured that no matter how great the public discontent, the forces in power would be insulated from accountability. Neoconservatives left office with smoking rubble in their wake, and got rich off of speaking fees. President George W. Bush is hawking a book of paintings and writing (or having ghost-written) well received op-eds in the Washington Post. Down South in North Carolina, a legislature that has diminished the state in almost every way–and that is a quantifiable fact–looks likely to hold majority status for at least another decade due to the sinister power of gerrymandering. The GOP’s grip on UNC is only tightening.
What we have seen is a confluence of elite failure and public disenfranchisement. The American political system failed utterly to rehabilitate our economy after the Wall Street crash, to prevent Donald Trump from being elected despite most of America finding him repugnant, to win two wars (one of which was entered entirely by choice), to respond to a pandemic, and to protect democracy from the most concerted assault since the end of Reconstruction. UNC is imploding, and there’s almost nothing students or faculty can do to stanch the bloodletting being imposed by GOP witch doctors. Americans rightly feel that they have lost control of their government, their institutions, and, in North Carolina, the University that was once their greatest pride.
None of this is to endorse Trump-style populism. In fact, it is the inability to clip the wings of populist demagogues that is perhaps the greatest failure that American political mavens have perpetrated upon a national citizenry that just wants competent governance. The NCGOP’s populism is entirely destructive, and safeguarded, ironically, by institutions that limit the power of the people. Regardless, every conscientious citizen has a right to be enraged at what is happening in their country and state and with the lack of recourse that our decaying democracy offers them to correct elite failures.
Go Heels, Go America! say Carolina fans. In reality both UNC and the United States seem to be going to hell in a hand basket.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.