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RALEIGH — During the July news doldrums, a young reporter asked how state politics have changed since I arrived in the capital.
“It’s more partisan, isn’t it?” he asked.
I paused, then said, “No, it was always partisan,” but I couldn’t put my finger on a difference I sensed but could not articulate.
Wednesday, while eating fried squash in the Legislative Building cafeteria, it came to me.
Partisanship continues, just as it always has, but the nature of that partisanship has changed.
In 1979, there were three major factions and two parties: Republicans, progressive Democrats and conservative Democrats. The Democrats were never as united as Republicans are today. Gov. Jim Hunt was widely considered a progressive, but sometimes he was conservative.
On many issues, the two Democratic wings voted together, always on partisan issues. But conservative Democrats regularly defeated progressive bills with Republican help, and they could pass much of their own agenda that way, also. Progressives could get a few votes from liberal, urban Republicans. (No kidding!)
Republicans could get bills passed by secretly finding a conservative Democrat to sponsor them.
The Democratic balance changed in the early 1990s, and progressives took charge of the party. By this time, almost all legislative conservatives were Republicans, not Democrats.
And that’s the major change between then and now — ideological purity, a form of insularity. The parties are no longer wide umbrellas.
Today’s partisanship is not Republican vs. Democrats. It’s right-versus center-left and left. There’s no overlap, no liberal or moderate Republicans, and no Democrats who could pass for what we call “conservatives” today. I don’t sense a center.
In the early 1980s, quite a few Republicans were moderates. They voted, for example, against making the MLK Jr. holiday a dual celebration for Robert E. Lee. Today’s Republicans passed a law defending Confederate statues in the state.
Political gerrymandering has insulated the parties from each other. The partisan balance in the districts works to the advantage of the true believers in each party. Come general election time, candidates have no reason to move to the center in most districts. So, we’re electing more right-wing Republicans and more left-wing Democrats.
Once these people get to Raleigh, they don’t move to the center because there’s no pressure from home to do so, and they are probably not personally inclined to do so anyway.
Not being invited to closed-door party caucuses, I can’t say this for sure, but my educated guess is that there’s less ideological debate in these meetings than before because the parties are more united. (Maybe there is ideological debate on whether a stand is far enough to the right or left.)
My suspicion, then, is that the disruptions we see in party unity are due more to personal rivalries and to community or special interest concerns. Sen. Green may simply dislike Sen. Brown or Rep. Smith might see Rep. Jones as a future leadership rival, so they undermine the other legislator’s bill in caucus. That stuff always existed.
Then there are the special interest considerations. Jones fears that the Smith bill will hurt his community or a campaign contributor, so he opposes it even though Smith is an ideological soul mate.
An offshoot of this is that there is less loyalty today to party than there is to philosophy. The best example is the thrashing former Gov. Pat McCrory got from his own party. McCrory had to move right to align with the legislative majority and it eventually cost him re-election.
Another important note: The cafeteria’s fried squash, if hot, is as good today as ever, but make sure it’s hot.
Paul T. O’Connor writes for the N.C. Insider news service and has covered state government for 39 years.