Opinion | What a Party Switch in North Carolina Means for Democrats
My recent column generated a lot of mail.
Some readers felt hopeless about the brazen Tennessee G.O.P. maneuvers. Others felt empowered after Democratic pressure led to Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson being reseated less than a week after Republicans expelled them.
I take any act of people power as a good sign that authoritarianism has not completely suffocated direct democratic action. It is understandable when wanton flaunting of power makes you feel hopeless. It is also OK to feel joy about small victories in the face of it.
This is a win.
I had a few questions about whether Democrats in my state, North Carolina, were really winning or losing with the recent party switch of Tricia Cotham. To recap my column, North Carolina State Representative Cotham recently announced her switch to the Republican Party after serving five and a half terms as a Democrat in the state’s heavily Democratic Mecklenburg County. If it can keep its caucus together, the state’s G.O.P. now has enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Cotham’s decision is potentially devastating as North Carolina, which is a sometime purple state, is in the cross hairs of the same culture wars, dark money and intrastate battles being waged across the nation. Those battles are even more acute post-Donald Trump, whose racial grievance politics draws on deep Southern fault lines.
I put her switch in the broader context of a G.O.P. bag of tricks to gut democratic rule by any means necessary. I cannot question Cotham’s state of mind. Her media tour on the subject is nonsensical and vague, though, by the most generous standards. She stutters about unspecified run-ins in public with mean constituents and unwelcoming Democrats, for instance. None of it sounds like substantive policy differences.
But I can question the incentives the G.O.P. offers to a candidate who is interested in building a personal political brand. In 2023, attention is currency. It gets you views online, which can get you booked on TV and interviewed in the media. Getting on TV might get you invited to conferences or noticed by a book agent or chosen as a conservative donor favorite. At the very least, being on television and speaking and being cheered by favorable audiences sound like more fun than driving rural highways to have coffee chats with constituents who disagree with your thoughts on a minor local policy issue that even the local news does not — or cannot — cover.
For a model on the choices before Tricia Cotham, one need look no further than conservative commentator Matt Walsh. It is safe to call Walsh a firebrand. Although not an elected official, he exists in the same information world as Marjorie Taylor Greene. In published emails about his decision to become a conservative opinion maker, Walsh is reported to have said, “There’s certainly plenty of money to be made when you can get millions of hits online, and I’m a capitalist and I have a family, so I’ve decided to start getting serious about that.” The Democratic Party does not have an opinion money-making environment that can compete with that of Republicans. If you are shopping a political brand, the incentives are very uneven.
That’s a little media theory. North Carolina Representative Graig Meyer had a more practical read of the changes in the state’s new balance of power. Like me, he thinks it has little to do with Cotham herself. On Twitter, Meyer, a Democrat, laid out how much national abortion policy boxes in North Carolina Republicans. And even with their new veto override power, Meyer tweeted that the state’s Republicans cannot do as much as they may want to do because they don’t want to be tied to the unpopular abortion bans. I found the thread so interesting that I called Meyer up to talk a bit more about it.
Meyer is like people I talked with in Cotham’s district, by the way. Let’s just say, there are not a lot of people on the ground in the circles that I contacted surprised by her decision. Those circles have a lot of ties to reproductive and economic justice. Cotham had been a reliable partner on those issues in the past but people told me that in her last campaign she had been less responsive.
No matter, Meyer says. For Southerners and North Carolinians who “are religious and also blue collar or just regular everyday folks, abortion is an economic issue,” he told me. That resonates with what regional reproductive rights organizations have said for a long time. A lot of religious people in the South can and will vote to protect abortion. They will also vote to promote class-based economic justice issues. Meyer was telling me that religion does not mean that someone is “conservative” in the way that the national media and national political parties often understand it.
State Republicans know that just as well as state Democrats do, he says. They know that aggressive abortion bans will be unpopular. Unless state Republicans have an eye on private industry, national politics or punditry, pushing through unpopular national party lines won’t do them many favors.
Cotham’s party switch helps the G.O.P. drive its national narrative but does less for the local one. Meyer worries that the Democratic Party may have fallen too deep into that narrative by calling for Cotham’s resignation. But he thinks that given how unpopular abortion bans are, nationally and locally, Democrats should welcome Republicans using the power they’ve played so dirty to win.
“Bring it on,” he says.
Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.
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