Saturday, December 8, 2018

Some professional and personal thoughts on the NC Ninth and the Old North State's Political Character

As I sit down to write this post, much of the Old North State is set to experience something very rare: something that will blanket the state, cause many to worry and hunker down, and will likely leave a lasting impact on some for generations to come.

Actually, I should clarify that it's two things the state will experience simultaneously: a rare pre-Christmas snow fall across much of the state with significant accumulations, and an election scandal blowing out of the North Carolina Ninth Congressional District.

Setting aside the out-of-the-ordinary snowpocalypse, the Ninth Congressional District's election fraud storm that has rocked this state is unlike anything I have seen or experienced in sixteen years of studying North Carolina politics. While there may be times of localized issues surrounding election fraud, or bitterly contested elections that tear the state apart (any of Jesse Helms' election contests seem to fit that bill), the allegations coming out of the Ninth Congressional District provoke expressions of shock, embarrassment, and disbelief among native North Carolinians, who have a common ending refrain of "this isn't my North Carolina."

And from a historical point of view, they are mostly right: this isn't the traditional North Carolina politics. Yes, court-house rings of sheriffs and others have held political power and used that power to sway elections, most recently in Yancey County and in other rural mountain counties. The Old North State has been rocked by scandals before, including a powerful state house speaker, the dynastic lineage of a prominent political family's fall from electoral grace, a governor who admitted to a campaign finance charge, and a big-city mayor resigning in corruption charges.

But in its modern history, the Old North State never suffered from the taint of major corruption born often by the influence of machine-style politics, like other Southern U.S. states. This semester, I taught Southern Politics, a course I deeply love, and when we explored each of the states, we discussed the various machines of days gone by: the Byrd "organization" in Virginia, the "Boss" Crump machine in Tennessee, the Long machine in Louisiana, and even the Wallace machine in Alabama. Other states suffered from "rings" of power, most notably the Barnwell Ring in my former home state of South Carolina.

But North Carolina never suffered from a machine-style political environment, because as those states were under the thumbs of one or two individuals, North Carolina, as the leading scholar of Southern politics observed in the mid-20th Century, was ruled by a "progressive plutocracy," where a group of individuals held political power, but used that power for progressive advancements for the entire state, rather than enriching one's wallet or acquiring even more power. In fact, the Old North State prided itself as the "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit."

But that "progressive plutocracy" has been described as a myth by more recent scholars of the Old North State. In their reevaluation of Southern politics since Key, Jack Bass and Walter DeVries describe the state's "progressive myth":

"North Carolina remains a plutocracy, but a complacency has replaced the 'energetic and ambitious' mood that Key detected. Migrants to the state who are familiar with the progressive reputation tend to be struck by the reality they find. 'The farther you get from North Carolina, the more progressive it looks,' declared Ferrel Guillory, an astute observer who moved from New Orleans to become the chief political writer for the Raleigh News & Observer." (218-219). 

Others have argued that when it came to civil rights, rights for Native Americans, and others, North Carolina has a traditionalistic and conservative mentality, fitting in with its Southern brethren. For a modern example, one can point to the 2012 referendum defining marriage as between one man and one woman, which passed with 60 percent of the vote in a primary election.

Accomplished scholars, like my fellow political scientist colleague Tom Eamon at East Carolina University and the late state legislator and professor at UNC-Greensboro Paul Luebke, have noted the dichotomy of North Carolina's politics: of two factions that often battle for power and policy to advance the state in different ideological trajectories. Contemporary observers, like the Raleigh News & Observer's Rob Christensen, have documented the variations and fascinating history within the state's political dynamics. Jack Fleer, another distinguished scholar of the state's politics, wrote that:

"North Carolina has been and has been seen as a leader in the South throughout much of its history. ... Although there are glaring and important exceptions, over an extended period of time and in a variety of settings, North Carolina has been a progressive state in the region." (268-269)

But when it comes to corrupting scandals, very few instances in modern North Carolina political history may compare to what we may witness ultimately out of the Ninth Congressional District. The nature of the allegations--absentee by mail ballots that were allegedly manipulated, or worse, destroyed--in one of the most competitive federal elections reflects a sense of how much power politics can bring to human behavior, and what that behavior can lead to through wrongdoing. And the likelihood is that a potential history of repeated offenses out of the rural county of Bladen, and perhaps beyond, may ultimately show that both sides of the political aisle have been beneficiaries and victims of election fraud.

The "both sides does it" mechanical response must not discount the damage to the electoral system's integrity in this state--or any state, for that matter. That this scandal may engulf Republicans, but that Democrats may be implicated in previous malfeasance, is something that does strike at the heart of North Carolinians' belief that "this couldn't possibly happen in our beloved state." It's a sad commentary to say that political scandal may be one of the few truly bi-partisan aspects left in our polarized environment.

The evolving hyper-partisan nature of this state's politics, which I have witnessed first hand since 2002, may make some reconsider the progressive rose-tinted outlook to the Old North State. Before 2008, it seemed like a usual pattern of Republican federal wins with Democratic state-level victories typified the state's political character. Following the 2008 competitive presidential election, which swung a +13 Republican margin of victory four years earlier to a +0.32 Democratic presidential victory, North Carolina became much more prone to the polarized intensity. With a resounding Republican wave in 2010, every subsequent election are ones eked out at the margins, with the exceptions of legislative districts stacked in one party's favor or the other. Competition is healthy and necessary in the politics of a democratic republic, but too much competition over political power may lead to the "win at any cost" mentality that damages the body politic.

Politics is a blood sport, a quote often attributed to Aneurin Bevan, but it seems like our civic blood has become more corrupted in today's political warfare. The collateral damage that this election fraud, if proven true, will be more than just Bladen ballots disposed of or tampered with, or one party accusing the other (and vice versa) of malfeasance and irregularities.

It will be a body blow to the integrity, health, and confidence of our governing system itself.

Nowadays, citizens expect their politics to be dirty--in fact, more citizens dislike the other side when it comes to political beliefs. But the core activity of a democratic republic is that the citizen's voice, expressed through the vote, is to be available, respected, acknowledged, and protected. And most of all, it should be the core of what makes our unique experiment continue to operate--for the time being, at least.

On a more personal note: the reaction and flood of publicity brought by this issue has truly been something I have never experienced before. Yes, the competitive elections of 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and now 2018 is something that seems to only grow in stature as I try to digest and understand all of the ins-and-outs of this state's politics, and I have been fortunate to be called upon as one of many analysts to offer my insight on the Old North State.

But for the past week, when I published the first blog post analyzing the absentee by mail vote disparity, following the State Board of Elections' unanimous vote not to certify the Ninth Congressional District, and the subsequent affidavits that seemed to narrate the data I was presenting--all I can say is, if the snowball started on Tuesday, November 27 with the SBOE's decision, it grew into a monumental avalanche of calls and requests the likes I have never seen before. It has been humbling to speak to so many about the various aspects of this issue, and to present the evidence that I could gather, in the wake of this controversy. It has been a national and international story, and I suspect it will only continue to grow as the results of the evidentiary hearing are made public and the subsequent decisions are made afterward.

Needless to say, with the snow storm, I'm hopeful that for a few hours (or, maybe, days), the outside environment I'll see is fairly clean and quiet. I'll try to enjoy that time, if just for a brief moment, especially knowing that forecast of dark clouds of this scandal will return all too quickly.