A Tar Heel Manifesto


Electoral season is on the horizon. In North Carolina, our two parties gird for battle. The Republicans seek to enhance and secure a dramatic transformation of the state. Democrats search for a pathway out of stumbling irrelevance. The Washington Post reports that Tar Heel “politicians from both sides are calibrating their messages – too liberal, too conservative, or just right.” Each seeks to “make [its] base care without angering independents.”

For the Republicans, that means sugar-coating the damage they have so quickly and forcefully wrought. For Democrats, the prized landscape is about 6 inches to the “moderate” side of their adversaries. As ever, they’ll be sure of only one thing: They’re not Republicans. But for North Carolina, in 2014, this won’t do. We need a politics as large as our threats. Few would have guessed, three years ago, that a governor and General Assembly would, or could, so swiftly alter the character and meaning of a commonwealth. Whether it comes from an awakened Democratic Party, a reformed and suddenly humane Republican one or from forces outside both camps, North Carolina is called to right itself – in a straightforward, unapologetic, immediate and impassioned battle to define its future.

The struggle should be waged on five foundational and constantly declared fronts:

1) North Carolina must reject its unforgivable war on poor people – in tax policy, health care, unemployment compensation and subsistence support. It is a rank violation of our history, our ethics and our constitutions. We’re a decent people. We aren’t bullies. And we don’t like those who are.

2) We will fight, with unyielding energy and commitment, to defeat voter suppression – the cardinal sin against democracy. We will not repudiate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Cesar Chavez, John Lewis, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Ella Baker and Julius Chambers. We know from whence we’ve come.

3) No matter what absurdities the Supreme Court may utter, we will struggle against the purchase of our democracy by the richest among us. If a foreign adversary tried to swamp our democracy, we’d fight to the death. Yet we accept this like sheep, as if we’re unworthy of our lineage. If politicians court money over people, we’ll make ’em pay.

4) We demand that every child – no matter her parents, her community, her race, her geography, her ancestry, her parents’ portfolio – receive an equally opened door to ennobling and opportunity-enhancing education. From pre-K to university, Tar Heels should be able to go where their wit and their will, not their family’s wealth, will take them. Our religions teach that all children are equal in the eyes of God. We run our schools as if we didn’t believe it.

5) We believe in the 14th Amendment. Enough of the relentless efforts to disparage and marginalize gay people, immigrants, women and people of color. Enough. It is far too late in the day to say we don’t believe in equality and civil rights. We are energized and fascinated by the diverse world stretching before us.

Teddy Roosevelt claimed: “At every stage the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and the commonwealth. This is nothing new.”

In truth, many of us thought these sorts of society-defining battles were behind us. We were wrong. Now the question is what we’ll do about it. We, too, are required to contribute a chapter to, in Richard Rorty’s words, “achieve our nation.” This is not the first time folks of good will have been called to strive for justice against the odds. As Jefferson thought, it’s our defining mission.

I’m not saying I know how this work can best unfold. I am certain it won’t be accomplished either by politicians who wield power to wound the powerless or by those whose only constant effort is to avoid annoying anyone. We struggle for our decency. We could wish our plight were otherwise. That won’t change a thing. It is what it is.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of law and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and President Emeritus of College of William & Mary.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014


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