This column is reprinted with permission by The News & Observer of Raleigh
November’s election results were a wave but also a realignment. Democrats broke the Republican super majorities in the legislature but their gains were mostly confined to the state’s urban areas and the party actually fared worse in many rural counties (Haywood, Ashe, Duplin, Scotland, Surry, etc.) than during the election of 2010.
John Edwards used to speak of the “Two Americas,” and now we’re living in two North Carolinas with two separate electorates. One strongly opposes the president, while the other was galvanized by the Kavanaugh hearings. One is progressive, diverse, and globalized. The other is conservative, evangelical and steeped in traditional values.
One is the North Carolina of Cracker Barrel, the other is the North Carolina of Whole Foods and Panera Bread. One mourns the lost simplicity of Mayberry while the other spends hundreds of dollars to see Hamilton. One enjoys the benefits of the post-industrial economy while the other built on furniture, tobacco and textiles has every right to feel anxious about life in the 21st century.
These two North Carolinas aren’t moving in opposite directions so much as one is moving faster than the other into the global economy and the other feels left behind. In one North Carolina the great challenges are deindustrialization, the opioid epidemic and the disappearance of work, while in the other the big issues are gentrification, affordable housing and rising student loan debt.
One North Carolina wishes to pursue social justice free of legislative interference while the other North Carolina is experiencing a natural and human reaction to all the change. That’s what the rural-urban divide is all about: North Carolinians are sorting themselves based on education-level, ideology and identity. And that, more than gerrymandering, is the greatest threat to our democracy.
Both North Carolinas would benefit from compromise in Raleigh: from Medicaid expansion, apprenticeships, more affordable college, early childhood education, higher teacher pay, and service corps opportunities that bring young people from rural and urban North Carolina together. But that requires understanding and humility and some semblance of a social compact.
North Carolina cannot exist as two states within a state. No democracy can. And bridging today’s divides (geographic, racial and cultural) is less about a specific policy than finding the good in each other and remembering our common heritage and our shared responsibility for the future.
The holiday season is probably the best opportunity to do that. Instead of preparing for Thanksgiving dinner as if it were a senate debate, compiling statistics to win the argument, we should use the time together to reconnect.
Today’s North Carolina is atomized, just like the country at-large. We watch different cable news shows and get our news from different websites. We disagree about the challenges and how to solve them, and we’ve become two warring political tribes: one urban, one rural; one white-collar, one blue-collar; one progressive, one conservative; one Democratic, one Republican.
That’s where we find identity. But in the end that’s not where we’ll find fulfillment. That only comes from family and a sense of community and the roots we have across the two North Carolinas. We wouldn’t be here if not for those on the other side, and we need them again, more than we’d like to admit.
Michael Cooper is a journalist and attorney from North Wilkesboro who now lives in Raleigh.