How Republicans' frightening power play in North Carolina will go national
The Republican Party in North Carolina is giving the rest of the country an object lesson in the difference between tyranny and democracy. Met with a close loss in the 2016 governor's race, brought on by passing a ton of really unpopular legislation, the North Carolina GOP is now going down the old path of rigging the electoral machinery against the opposition party.
Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship. But before he is sworn in, Republicans are using their control of the state legislature to strip away huge swaths of authority from the governor's office. As Paul Blest explains, Republicans are making one legislative push to give themselves an iron grip over the state and county election boards, and curtail the power of the state Supreme Court (which just gained a Democratic majority); and another to sharply restrict the governor's ability to appoint bureaucrats and influence the public education system. It is an attempt to overturn the election via legislative chicanery. Essentially, the Republican Party has "used the power of the state to protect itself from the voters of the state," as Jamelle Bouie writes.
This should be viewed as a potential test run for the nation as a whole. Republicans have near-unprecedented dominance across all levels of governance in the United States. But their party and their president-elect are actually quite unpopular. The agenda taking shape for a Trump administration is even more so. Chances of an electoral backlash are very good. So to cling to power, Republicans will likely cheat.
Let us recall some basic political principles. A democracy is a nation in which the government is chosen by a free vote of citizens. To ensure a free vote, democratic rights are protected — freedom of speech, assembly, and the press; freedom from unreasonable searches and police intimidation, a guarantee of fair trials, and so on. Without a real and freely made choice between competing candidates, there can be no true democracy.
A tyranny, by contrast, is a nation in which government is imposed on the citizens without choice, and dissent is repressed. But these two are often more of a spectrum than a binary distinction. About every modern dictatorship, for instance, has some form of pseudo-democratic legitimation, typically a one-candidate vote where a 99 percent approval rating extracted by threats of violence "proves" the dictator's popular backing.
Other partial tyrannies have genuine enfranchisement for some portion of the population while stamping down the rest. In apartheid South Africa, for example, there was actual practice of parliamentary democracy for the white population while everyone else lived in a hellish police state (though of course the machinery of repression tended to bleed over to cover any white people who disapproved of apartheid).
This sort of tyranny seems to be the Republican aim — and it's important to realize that despite the traditional bleating American chauvinism about liberty, such a quasi-tyrannical system is not remotely at odds with our history. On the contrary, a South Africa-style partial tyranny is how North Carolina has been governed for most of its history. (It's probably more accurate to call the apartheid system Jim Crow-style, since the American version was first.) Wilmington, North Carolina, rang in the worst phase of Jim Crow, when white supremacists executed a violent coup d'etat in 1898 against the duly elected local government — the product of a "fusionist" black-white populist alliance — killing dozens of people and torching many black homes and businesses. The first target and the spark for the coup was a black newspaper — freedom of the press often being the first thing to go when democracy is abrogated. After that, North Carolina (and most of the rest of the South) was a brutally repressive tyranny until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed. Tyranny is not the exception in North Carolina. For much of America's history, it was the rule.
It's not hard to predict how Republicans will attempt to cement their control of political power during the Trump years. Indeed, the tyranny is already some distance towards completion. Part of the plan will be what they have already been doing since they won the 2010 midterms and especially since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. They'll continue gerrymandering district boundaries to make it as hard as possible for Democrats to win (indeed, the way those selfsame state legislative districts are drawn in North Carolina is already an unconstitutional abrogation of civil rights, according to a federal court). They'll enact further targeted vote suppression measures to disenfranchise as many minorities and white liberals as possible, this time at the federal level if they can manage it. And for Democrats who manage to jump through all the hoops, they'll make it as onerous as possible for them to vote by restricting polling locations and hours in Democratic-leaning locations.
Finally, as we're seeing in North Carolina, any inconveniently lost elections can be overturned so long as the GOP controls enough other chunks of government. Legislatures can core out a governor's power, or Supreme Court decisions can overturn legislation with reverse-engineered legal argle-bargle. Who knows where it will stop. And from there it's really quite a short distance to stuffing ballot boxes or rigging the election counts. It has all happened before.
That does not mean all hope is lost. Even the height of Jim Crow was not a full dictatorship, and some sort of democratic ideology is deeply instilled in the American consciousness. Just look at how North Carolina Republicans kicked out the public and the press before passing their anti-democratic bills. They know what they're doing, and many are probably ashamed, deep down. They would wilt before a popular front of sufficient size and power.