While Americans often point to the Constitution as the reason for our successful and lengthy experiment in self-government, our democracy is supported by more than just a set of rules encapsulated in an antique document. The Founders knew that other bulwarks, including shared beliefs, values and virtues, were necessary for the preservation of liberty. They believed that our continued success as a democracy required a shared commitment to fundamental values, only some of which are expressed in the Constitution. Support for this point is easy to find among the writings of the first citizens of our nation.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that a basic understanding of “what is right and what is wrong” is “necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” John Adams simply said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of Republics.”
Given this connection between public and private probity, one of the most distressing developments of this past election season has been the flaunting of the norms governing political discourse. In some cases, this attack has taken the form of an explicit and devastating attack on the very norms that bind us together as a political people, including fairness, respect for others, a willingness to abide by impartial rules, reciprocity, a disavowal of violence, acceptance of evidence and proof, and a belief in the legitimacy of opposition. These are the norms that nourish and make possible our public life together as one people. This public life is where we deliberate, debate and decide the most important moral and political questions of our time.
Our public life together and our experiment in self-government cannot be sustained without an agreement on the fundamental norms of behavior. Yet these norms have been shredded by the recent political contest in ways not seen since the Civil War, and in a manner that may fray the fabric of the nation irreparably. This trampling of public norms was not just a characteristic of the presidential election, but has been felt in some of the states as well, including North Carolina, a state much like Louisiana.
North Carolina has been much in the news of late, mostly due to its passage of HB2 or the “bathroom bill,” which, most famously among its many effects, prompted the NBA to transfer its All-Star game to New Orleans. HB2 forbids local governments from extending protections to persons and groups not previously recognized as deserving such rights by state government or constitution. Leaving aside the merits of this particular bill and debate, the process that has unfolded in North Carolina since the passage of HB2 is troubling in many respects. There a Republican super majority has overreached in a number of areas, including an effort to limit the powers of the governor following the surprising election of a Democrat, Roy Cooper.
Calling themselves into a surprise special session much like the one that produced HB2 in 10 hours, the Legislature passed bills to diminish Gov.-elect Cooper’s appointment power, to require Senate approval for cabinet appointments, to change Supreme Court races from non-partisan to partisan and to enhance the superintendent of education’s power. Taken together these hasty and ill-considered legislative initiatives sharply reduce the power of the incoming Democratic governor and change fundamental aspects of North Carolina government.
These eleventh-hour changes violate some basic norms of American politics, most fundamentally the idea that the winners have a right to govern and that losers shouldn’t change the rules just because they don’t like the outcome of an election yet are in position to do so. In response, Republicans in North Carolina point to similar tactics pursued by Democrats in the 1970s under Gov. Jim Hunt. While this may be true, the hard feelings that remain 40 years later point to the ill will created by this stratagem.
Today, North Carolina is a conservative state with a very conservative Republican super-majority in the Legislature, but also a state that may, on occasion, elect a Democrat, which is why North Carolina may presage the future direction of Louisiana politics. Currently, both houses of Louisiana’s Legislature are majority Republican. But, as in North Carolina, a Democratic governor has won office in an election that was widely assumed to be a Republican lock. John Bel Edwards’ principal competition for re-election in 2019 is likely to be Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry. Landry, coincidentally, leads the Vitter-founded committee to elect a Republican majority. Given that there is already a Republican majority in the Legislature, it seems fair to suppose that this committee will focus its attention on defeating the 23 remaining white Democrats (five Senate, 18 House) who are not protected by majority-minority districts, and, in addition, replace RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) in both bodies with more fervent ideologues. Should this scenario come to pass, it takes no imagination to picture the windmills at which this Republican super majority might tilt.
Of course, these events may not occur, and we may yet find a way toward a state politics of reconciliation and compromise. But with Donald Trump in the White House and Jeff Landry waiting in the wings, I’m not betting on it.
Enjoy the 2017 NBA All-Star game while you can.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and news makers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].