Political Partisanship In NC: A Double-Edged Sword

Political Partisanship In NC: A Double-Edged Sword

6:00am Oct 22, 2020
This July 24, 2013 photo shows the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When it comes to partisan politics, North Carolina has become a microcosm of the country with rural areas growing redder, the cities and suburbs turning bluer. Since the Republican takeover of the general assembly in 2010, partisan battles over voting laws and maps have accelerated, further exposing stark divisions in the state. 

WFDD’s David Ford spoke with UNC-Greensboro assistant political science professor Drew Engelhardt about what’s driving this trend and how it impacts decision-making on the part of politicians and the voters who elect them.  

Interview Highlights

On the driving forces behind increased partisanship:

The issues and concerns that are central to political debate have changed. They've moved away from these kind of New Deal economic concerns that structured politics in the 50s and 60s. And now we have a lot of social issues, issues related to gender, to sexual orientation, immigration, race and ethnicity. So, these are a lot more hot button and charged issues for folks. And that's coupled with kind of a better alignment between people's issue preferences and interests and whether they see themselves as Democrats or Republicans. 70, 80, 90 percent of people say that they would be really reluctant to have a close friend or relative marry somebody from the other side. And the idea is that they see the person from the other side, the other party, as just holding a whole world view that's antithetical to the one that they have. So, what happens then is that by having to basically take positions on these charged issues, politicians, in doing the right thing and addressing constituent concerns, are actually creating the potential for deepening divides in the mass public. 

On the history of partisan politics in North Carolina:

Between 1876 and 1964, Democrats basically won every single presidential election within North Carolina, barring Herbert Hoover's victory in 1928. But then this solidly Democratic rule structured on voter intimidation and ballot access limitations, basically focusing only on white North Carolinians being able to participate — and even then, for half that time, it's white male North Carolinians — kind of bolsters one party rule through the Democratic Party. But after the introduction of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965, only two Democratic presidential candidates have won North Carolina. Jimmy Carter in 1976 and then Barack Obama by less than half a percentage point in 2008. So, it suggests if just looking at the presidential returns, that we would have a pretty solidly Republican state. But concurrent with these presidential elections, we've had nine of these 13 elections since the introduction of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts where a Democrat has won the gubernatorial election. Since these are held at the exact same time, suggest that North Carolinians aren't just voting a straight ticket. There's some other considerations going on, differentiating between national level politicians and local level politicians. 

On the pros and cons of rising political partisanship:

The increase in partisanship is a double-edged sword. I'll start off with the good. The good for an increase in partisanship is this incentive to like, cheer on a team, be a part of something, can actually get people to pay more attention to politics and to get more involved. The downside, though, is it potentially leads to these kind of fundamental disagreements between both politicians and people in the mass public. If people are nervous about a close friend or relative marrying somebody from the other side, it suggests that the image that they have in their head of a typical Democrat or Republican is some foreign individual to them. They don't understand their life experiences. And they think that, according to some survey data from organizations like Pew [Charitable Trusts], that the policies that the other side advocates are going to lead to the demise of the United States as we know it.

And this can actually lead folks to go around structures that we think of as hallmarks of small ‘d’ democracy in the sense of representation, fair rules, people having the ability to participate and provide their voice. In a political environment where you see the other side as anathema to what you're interested in, you're going to say that like, "well, I don't actually think that everybody needs to have the ability to protest. It's okay to curtail the rights of other people because I disagree with them politically." So, it kind of gives kindling for anti-Democratic sentiment, which is really concerning. 

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