Living in Illiberal Democracy

Guest post by Leah Abrams T’20

When I was in grade school, I learned the difference between democracy and authoritative government. In a democracy, that shining city upon a hill, the people had a voice in politics. They chose their leaders in free and fair elections, and their concerns were addressed by caring politicians. In an authoritative regime, those in power were manipulative and tyrannical, stopping at nothing to preserve their seats.

I was taught that authoritative regimes existed exclusively in the developing world and in the past. Places like Iran and Venezuela lacked the true democracy that was unconditionally protected here in the United States. I learned nothing to suggest that my rights, let alone democracy itself, could be threatened right here in my home state.

Yet, it did not take long before I discovered otherwise. By 2010, a vast republican majority was elected just in time for the redrawing of the North Carolinian districts. Instead of chartering a nonpartisan map, the General Assembly chose to charter themselves into unconditional power. By populous, North Carolina is the most evenly split state in the nation; Republicans and Democrats are nearly perfectly matched. Yet, if we judged only by the heavy tide of reactionism stemming from the legislature, we might assume that the entire North Carolinian electorate was a strict Tea Party-er. The shapes of our precincts defy reason. They stretch to include a single house or a single street, snaking around the state to mathematically ensure a constant Republican majority within the General Assembly. No election is fair nor free if the people cannot change its outcome.

Today, the Republican Party has an absolute, veto-proof, overwhelming supermajority in both houses of the General Assembly. What’s more, the N.C. GOP has waged a war against perceived “voter fraud.” They have cracked down on everything from pre-registration to early voting hours to restrictive ID laws. Any barrier to the polls will fall unevenly on minorities, the poor, and young people; all groups who traditionally vote Democrat. On the day I got my full license in 2015, I pre-registered to vote at the local DMV. In the past, this had been the legal tactic of increasing registration among young people. I walked out, beaming with pride, thrilled at the idea that I would be voting in the next presidential election. Two days after I filled out my form, the legislature decided to do away with pre-registration. An envelope arrived in the mail for me, with a photocopy of my documents, stamped “DENIED” in red.

If voter manipulation weren’t enough, the N.C. legislature slashed education budgets across the state. Over the course of my high school career, I watched no less than 18 faculty members leave, all of them searching for higher pay. I knew teachers who worked three jobs and teachers whose children received free-and-reduced-lunch. In 2015, I protested funding cuts at the state legislature, holding a sign about teacher pay. A representative from the Republican Party asked me, “Why does a teacher need a living wage when her husband is probably the breadwinner?”

By 2014, our per-pupil spending was over $3,000 below the national average. Kids sitting in classrooms right now are being stiffed of the education they deserve. Kids like me have watched their classrooms deteriorate and morale from mentors dissipate. There is no feeling of discouragement stronger than watching hope leave a place of learning.

And yet, beyond dangerous social and fiscal policy, even beyond House Bill 2, North Carolina is faced with pressing illegality of the General Assembly’s recent special sessions. The first of these special sessions occurred just days before Governor Roy Cooper officially took office. The bills in question had been in the work for weeks on the Republican side, but Democrats were called to session and given a mere few hours to review House Bill 17 and dozens of other power-stripping bills. Some have called the fourth special session of the McCrory government the “North Carolinian Coup,” because the ratified bills effectively stole and diverted the power of the incoming Democratic Governor. Under these laws, Cooper’s cabinet will be subject to approval by the legislature, Cooper will be allotted 425 agency positions to appoint in contrast with McCrory’s 1,000 and Cooper will have no say in the appointees to the State Board of Elections. An additional session was called to repeal House Bill 2, the infamous “Bathroom Bill.” Democrats were promised a clean repeal of the embarrassing discriminatory bill, but instead Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger proposed a conditional bill that included legislation such as a “moratorium” on any future locally proposed nondiscrimination ordinances. This partisan move ended in the ultimate failure to repeal House Bill 2, meaning that North Carolina continues to codify discrimination.

The next few years will be a whirlwind. It is difficult for me to optimistic, when even now, Republicans are blocking Governor Cooper’s attempts to expand Medicaid. This matters not just for those of us raised in this state, but it matters for every single Duke student. We are lucky to share Durham over the next four years as our home. We owe it and its people our steadfast dedication and support, not only because our institution has its roots in this state, but because our degrees are worth more when they come from a true democracy.

With unbounded tyranny and disregard for popular voice, the North Carolina General Assembly is tainting the reputation of its state and all of its institutions; including Duke. We learn about foreign policy and international comparative studies, always considering the best path to democracy abroad. Perhaps it’s time to consider the path to ensuring democracy right here in Durham.

This piece was originally published in The Chronicle. Photo by Dave Crosby.