How anti-democratic measures are eroding democratic norms in North Carolina
In the book How Democracies Die, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky argue that backsliding governments may reject the democratic rules of the game in order to keep power, and may employ any means necessary to maintain that power (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). One such example of a state government backsliding, in the United States, is North Carolina. The state government was deemed illegally constituted by their Superior Court, because it had been gerrymandered to disenfranchise African American voters. Beyond that, their willingness to violate long-standing democratic norms and play political hardball shows what a democracy without forbearance or mutual toleration could look like.
One such example of any means necessary is the evident lack of institutional forbearance, or “patient self-control; restraint… from exercising a legal right,” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018) in holding a surprise vote. On 9/11, Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives held a vote to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget bill. Democrats had been informed that there would be no votes held that morning, so off they went to ceremonies to commemorate the lives lost in the largest terror attack on US soil. With their limited caucus, the Republican Speaker of the House called for a vote on the budget bill; it passed 55-9. Cooper describes it as “their most deceptive stunt yet.”
What the North Carolina Republicans did was not illegal; it was deceitful and divisive on a day where the country is supposed to be united. With some self-control and empathy, the Republicans could have recognized that their actions were not only disrespectful to their counterparts, but to all the first responders and victims of the worst case of domestic terrorism in the United States. The political hardball the Republicans felt inclined to employ shows the dissolution of institutional forbearance. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that institutional forbearance is a “soft guardrail” of our democracy, and to see it disregarded time and time again is troubling. With the dissolution of forbearance, we could see a future of underhanded and disrespectful politics, undermining the prestige and sanctity of politics as we know it.
Gerrymandering is also a pressing issue, demonstrating the dissolution of mutual toleration in government. Gerrymandering is redistricting congressional maps in order to tilt political power in favor of one group. The objective is to draw electoral districts so that members of the responsible party are likely to win as many seats as possible, even if they don’t receive the majority of the vote.
In the North Carolinian House, Republicans only won 48.8% of the vote, but have control of 54% of the seats. I’m not a math major, but something there doesn’t quite add up. “In the 2018 House elections, Republican candidates won a minority—48.8%—of the two-party statewide vote, but still won 65 of 120 seats (54%).” This undemocratic plan intended to disenfranchise many African-American voters from having accurate representation in the state legislature. By drawing the districts the way they were drawn, many more people lost the power they are supposed to have in a representative democracy.
Moreover, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that “… authoritarians looking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals”. The apparent apprehension of Republican politicians demonstrates that they felt the need to tamper with the electoral process in order to win. “If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat… we may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them,” according to Levitsky and Ziblatt; the case of North Carolina demonstrates just that.
Even though the courts eventually rejected the racially gerrymandered districts, their passage exposed a Republican Party ready to exploit its power to cripple its perceived enemies. This was further emboldened by the unconstitutional measures taken in order to achieve the results they wanted in spite of their political counterparts. A future of dissolving political norms is scary to think about: they’ve preserved American democracy since its origin. Nobody can say for sure the implications of what went down in North Carolina, but one thing is certain: the institutions in place can be undermined, and if this political behavior continues, democracy is in danger.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing.
Wines, M. (2019, June 27). What Is Gerrymandering? And Why Did the Supreme Court Rule on It? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/us/what-is-gerrymandering.html
‘Most deceptive stunt yet’: North Carolina governor blasts Republicans over budget veto vote. (2019, September 11). Retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posttv/video/politics/most-deceptive-stunt-yet-north-carolina-governor-blasts-republicans-over-budget-veto-vote/2019/09/12/8ddf312e-af4f-4aa9-8973-6ffe2fc3f089_video.html
CBS/AP. (2019, September 11). North Carolina GOP votes to override budget veto while many Democrats were at 9/11 events. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/north-carolina-gop-overrides-budget-veto-in-vote-while-many-democrats-were-at-911-events/.
Common Cause v. Lewis (2019, September 3). Retrieved from http://www.commoncause.org/north-carolina/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2019/09/Common-Cause-v.-Lewis-trial-court-decision-9.3.19.pdf
Doran, W. (2019, February 22). NC judge throws out voter ID and income tax constitutional amendments. Retrieved from https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article226652589.html.