David Coates

Advice to Progressives in a Conservative State


The Governor of North Carolina is becoming quite a megastar in conservative circles these days. He was a welcome addition to the gubernatorial campaign of Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia last Thursday, when he was fresh back from an address to the prestigious Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. The Heritage Foundation hailed Pat McCrory as “the kind of Republican reformer that Washington could emulate,”[1] and given their politics, well they might. For North Carolina under his leadership has been the site of the most rampageous conservative legislative blitz in living memory. In just six short months in 2013, the state’s newly Republican-controlled legislature passed Voter ID legislation so severe that the Justice Department is now challenging it in court.  That same legislature cut benefits for 170,000 long-term unemployed North Carolinians in a state with an unemployment rate well above the national average, and ended the state earned-income tax credit for their slightly more fortunate low-paid equivalents. Republican legislators in Raleigh also refused to extend Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, so robbing 500,000 North Carolinians of access to health care they could otherwise not afford; and they so restricted access to abortion in the state as to put 16 of the 17 clinics in jeopardy of closing.[2]

North Carolina is currently Tea Party heaven – radical conservatism run amok – with progressive forces within the state struggling to know best how to respond. There has been response – wonderful and impressive response – in the form of Moral Monday protests that have briefly sent a new generation of civil rights activists straight to jail. Those arrests have swept up all sorts of North Carolinians – some young, some old, some black, some white, some religious, some not – and have been (and remain) a source of inspiration and hope for so many of us deeply troubled by this Republican onslaught.  But protests have eventually to transmute themselves into policy, and outrage has ultimately to be consolidated in the form of votes – and votes by so many more people than those able and willing to experience jail time in Raleigh.  So the question now, for progressives at least, is exactly how? How to bring this period of extreme conservatism rapidly and permanently to an end?  

This way, perhaps.

  • ·         First, by recognizing that we won’t succeed politically over the long-term if we don’t first now grasp the unique character and significance of the political forces against which we are arrayed. Both nationally and inside North Carolina, we face a new kind of conservative movement, an ideological one. Historically, conservatives were rarely the party of ideas. Ideas and ideologies were things they left to progressives. But not anymore – now we face active conservative ideological entrepreneurs. We face conservatives who recognize the importance of popularizing a particular way of understanding politics and society. We face millionaires like Art Pope in Raleigh and the Koch brothers everywhere else, millionaires who are busy – with their money, their think-tanks and their media outlets – selling a framework for politics that makes certain conservative policy outcomes seem essential and automatic – policy outcomes that further the interests of the people they represent, but outcomes they present to the rest of us as in the interests of everybody.


  • Secondly, by recognizing that many of us were caught off-guard last election. We were so used to a particular kind of conservative opponent that we didn’t see the new one creeping up behind us. We were so used to conservatism in the South being linked to a particular form of evangelicalism – to conservative preachers reconfiguring Jesus Christ as a tax-cutting, small-minded, cowboy capitalist – that we were caught napping by the arrival of an entirely secular conservatism. Art Pope may have a religious surname, but that is as far as religion appears to go with him. He is not a religious conservative. He is a libertarian one. They are much the more dangerous of the two.


  • Thirdly, by seeing that progressives have to respond in kind. Because of the nature of the conservative movement we now face, it is not enough to fight them at the level of policy, though of course we must do that as well. We have to fight them at the level of ideas. We will win power back in Raleigh only if we can – in this next election cycle – expose the conservative philosophy that is currently being canvassed at us as bankrupt and self-serving. We will only win power back in Raleigh if we successfully reframe the political conversation across the entire state, and reframe it in a progressive direction – getting opinion-makers everywhere talking our language, understandings and concerns, not Art Pope’s. And we will not successfully reframe that conversation without also grasping that political framing of the kind we need works best when organized around a simple idea that speaks to wide bodies of people because it taps into their already lived experience and shared common sense.


  • The conservatives now in power in Raleigh would appear to know that, which is presumably why they continually focus on the idea of individual freedom, and why they then define freedom in a particular and very narrow way. For them freedom is understood negatively – as freedom from – as the absence of regulations by government. They are entirely silent/blind on the economic and social inequalities that drain the reality of that freedom from those who are poor (including the working poor and the ever-shrinking middle class). Not for these conservatives any recognition of the role of public policy in creating level playing fields on which people can genuinely freely interact. Not for them a positive notion of freedom – freedom as freedom to do things – based on the recognition that people can only be genuinely free if they have the resources on which to pursue their life-goals. No, just negative freedom – freedom empowering only for those who already have the private resources to exploit market processes to the full.


  •  To counter that, those of us holding progressive values need to argue strongly for positive freedoms: for social justice, for aid to the under-resourced, and for the leveling of playing fields for our children. But building a progressive case around social justice as the key idea will always run up, in a state like North Carolina, against the welfare-dependency arguments so prevalent in a stridently individualistic culture. So as progressives we have to do more. We have to build our arguments around another equally powerful and basic American value and image – one just as pervasive in popular culture as individualism itself. And there is one available for use: the whole idea of the American Dream. The American Dream is the aspiration and the promise at the heart of our collective story. It is what makes America special. So progressives would do well to say – and say regularly – that Art Pope and his policies deny access to the American Dream to more and more Americans. We would do well, that is, to challenge the conservatives in Raleigh on the basis of their Americanism. We have to reclaim the best of America’s past as the key to its better future – a future built on the recognition of this country as the home of the New Deal, the land of opportunity, the place where people start level and grow unequal by their efforts rather than by the accident of their birth. Not everyone can inherit their wealth, as Art Pope and the Koch brothers did, and those who did are a poor guide for the rest of us. We have to expose the bias to the already-rich tucked away in every conservative policy proposal that curbs the progressive role of the democratically-elected state, and we have to do it over and over again.


  • And what better way to start that exposure than by showing how profoundly un-American the new voting restrictions introduced by the Republican governor and his legislative colleagues happen to be. All we need do is remember what occurred in Boone in June this year – the closing of voting booths accessible to the people, the moving of them to obscure locations inaccessible to many students and the poor. Or remember the arrests of Moral Monday protestors in Raleigh, Monday after Monday. Then go back and look at what Benjamin Franklin told the British Crown was the quickest way to lose its American empire – “whenever the injured come to the capital with complaints of mal-administration, oppression or injustice,” he wrote in 1762, “punish such suitors with long delay, enormous expense, and a final judgment in favor of the oppressor.”  Or go back and look at what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence about the “repeated injuries and usurpations” practiced on the patient colonists by a tyrannical king: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”. Pat McCrory may be popular with the Heritage Foundation, but from where I stand he appears to be acting more and more like a colonial governor, rather than as a governor in a free state in a free society.

Progressives should therefore take heart from what Andrew Jackson once said of our sister state – South Carolina – when an earlier kind of McCrory (John C. Calhoun) threatened to take the South out of the Union if southern states were denied the right to nullify federal laws with which they disagreed.[3] Andrew Jackson’s response was wonderfully positive, as ours now should be. The future lay with him, not with the nullifiers, he said, because South Carolina was too small to be an independent state, and too big to be a lunatic asylum. He was right then, and we are right now. The insane may be in charge in Raleigh now, the lunatics have taken over there for sure, but sanity will in the end win through. There are just too many sane people left in North Carolina for ultra-conservative Republicans permanently to prevail. So watch: we will eventually vote them out.

A shorter version, titled Progressives must reclaim heritage that built America, can be found in the Greensboro News and Record, Sunday October 27, 2013. Available at http://www.news-record.com/opinion/columns/article_6f3eb668-3db1-11e3-bf78-001a4bcf6878.html


[3] On the parallels with nullification (with thanks to Dr. Sharee Fowler for the reference) see Rob Schofield, Nullification? Secession? Posted on N.C. Policy Watch October 23, 2013: available at http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2013/10/23/nullification-secession/

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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