In just eight short years, North Carolina has been transformed from a moderate battleground state with a relatively robust public education system—for a Southern state, at least—to into a Randian fever dream that, according to one group of political scientists, no longer qualifies as a democracy.
Citing analysis conducted by his colleagues at the Electoral Integrity Project, Andrew Reynolds, a North Carolinian who has traveled the world helping nascent democracies design their elections, mournfully reports that his home state’s overall “electoral integrity score” for the 2016 election “places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table—a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.”
Indeed, North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.
That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy—Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project—all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.
The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.
Reynolds’ piece is published as the state GOP shreds every document, pulls every plug, cuts every telephone line, and slashes every tire available to the incoming Democratic governor, but the phenomenon he is describing extends far beyond this rearguard action. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer writes in her book Dark Money, North Carolina is “something of a test kitchen” for plutocratic libertarians like the Kochs and their local ally Art Pope, a multimillionaire discount chain store tycoon.
Voting rights activists fighting against the rise of the hard right in North Carolina have won important victories in recent years, as when a federal appeals court struck down a voter ID requirement this summer and the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the state Republican party’s redistricting plan racially discriminatory in 2015. While both of those decisions were significant, they came too late to stop Republicans from taking control of the state government in 2010—for the first time since Reconstruction. That year, almost immediately upon taking office, Pat McCrory appointed Pope to be the state’s budget director, making him essentially the second-most powerful public official in North Carolina.
It didn’t take long for Pope’s agenda to make itself manifest. From Dark Money:
On almost every issue, the legislature followed the right-wing playbook that had originated in two think tanks, the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute, which were founded by Pope and largely funded by the Pope family’s $150 million John William Pope Foundation. Critics described Civitas as Pope’s conservative assembly line and a powerful force pushing the state’s politics ever further to the right. Pope rejected the description. “It’s not my organization,” he protested. “I don’t own it.” The pope family foundation, however, had supplied Civitas with more than 97 percent of its funding since its founding in 2005—some $8 million—and Pope sat on its board of directors. It also had supplied about 80 percent of the John Locke Foundation’s funding. A good bit of the remainder came from tobacco companies and two Koch family foundations.
The state legislature cut taxes on corporations drastically. To make up for the shortfall, they gutted the state’s school system. Pope, meanwhile, denied that economic inequality was a problem. “Wealth creation and wealth destruction is constantly happening,” he told Mayer in 2013. “America does not have an aristocracy or a plutocracy.”
Well. Soon enough it may not have a democracy, either, so where does that leave us?