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Will North Carolina Have A Civil War In Its Future?

by | Dec 20, 2023 | Democracy, Elections, Future, Government, North Carolina, Politics, Public Safety, Voters | 0 comments

In last week’s post, I reviewed the book How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them by Barbara Walter. Based on two decades of global research by a team of experts, Walter argues that there are trends in the U.S. that could lead to the modern version of a civil war.

By “civil war” she doesn’t mean a struggle between two armies like the American Civil War. Today’s civil wars are more like the way the Nazis came to power in Germany. They combine electoral politics, propaganda, political violence, and intimidation to gain power. Radical groups use these means to weaken institutions, create fear, and destroy confidence that democratic governments can protect us.

If Walter’s version of civil war is coming to the U.S. in the next decade, North Carolina would certainly feel its impact. News media, social media, federal government policy, and anti-government organizing doesn’t stop at state borders. In a federal system of divided powers, though, states can be hot beds of conflict or anchors of stability. Where might North Carolina end up?

Her book discusses several early indicators that scholars identified in countries that have experienced civil wars. Let’s take them one-by-one. Walter claims civil wars are more likely to occur in a country when:

The system of government falls somewhere between a dictatorship that can use repression and a full democracy that gives voice and influence to all parts of society.

I found two sources that rate the level of democracy in North Carolina. Jake Grumbach is an academic who created the State Democracy Index with data between 2000-2018. By his rating system, North Carolina was 49th among states for the quality of its democratic institutions in 2018. A project with current data is called Snapshot: Democracy Ratings By State. As of 2023, they rate NC as 34th among states.

A complete breakdown of the factors that go into the Snapshot rating are available at the North Carolina Democracy Profile. Briefly, some of the factors that contribute to North Carolina’s low rating are:

  • Making it more difficult to register to vote than in most states,
  • Not allowing citizens to initiate referendums,
  • Having low voter turnout,
  • Having long wait times to vote,
  • Making absentee voting more difficult than other states,
  • Having no protections against election disinformation,
  • Having a partisan redistricting process, and
  • Having no laws protecting election officials against threats.

Bottom line: It appears that North Carolina has a flawed democracy that could leave it vulnerable to extremist pressures.

Political parties are split along racial, cultural, or ethnic lines.

The best public data I can find on the makeup of the major political parties in North Carolina is from the report States of Change: How Demographic Change is Transforming the Republican and Democratic Parties. Here is their breakdown of North Carolina’s 2020 party composition:

GroupDem.Rep.
White, Non-College20%62%
White, College Graduates30%26%
Black42% 5%
Hispanic 4% 3%
Asian & Other 4% 4%

What is not captured in these numbers is a strong urban/rural divide in North Carolina. Counties classified as urban are uniformly Democratic strongholds while rural counties are Republican strongholds. The combination of this geographic dispersion and North Carolina’s partisan redistricting process will allow Republicans to retain majorities in the NC legislature and congressional delegation through gerrymandering, even if they start losing state-wide races.

State-wide elections in North Carolina are often decided by just a few percentage point — neither party can afford to go all out for one ethnic group. Half of the Democratic Party’s voters are ethnic minorities. It will need to keep them motivated and involved. Half are whites who must not be alienated if the party hopes to win.

Republicans may see an opportunity in the Democrats’ 50/50 split between white voters and ethnic minorities.  Their dilemma is deciding whether to eat into the Democratic Party’s coalition by expanding their appeal to minorities with conservative social values, or by expanding their appeal to white voters through scare tactics about the rise of ethnic minorities – as happened in the Jim Crow Era.

Bottom line: The fact that the Republicans’ leading candidate for governor in 2024 is the African-American Lt. Governor Mark Robinson provides an example of how they could expand by appealing to socially conservative ethnic minority voters. His (very) conservative comments about abortion, guns, and gender may express the feelings of some who believe the Democrats have gone too far to the left on social issues.

The NC Democratic Party base is already very ethnically and culturally diverse. They could do better by addressing the needs and values of rural voters. Time will tell which direction the NC Republican Party goes.

Members of one ethnic, cultural, or religious group believes they are losing their dominant position.

In 2020, the Bookings Institute did some good work on this factor in its report, America’s Electoral Future: The Coming Generational Transformation. They project the share of ethnic minority eligible voters in North Carolina will grow from 32% in 2020 to 38% in 2036. The share of voters born after 1981 will from increase from 37% in 2020 to 60% in 2036.

The significance of this is that those born after 1981 – “Generation X and Millennials” – have much more liberal attitudes and vote for Democrats in much higher numbers than members of previous generations. Ethnic minorities also tend to vote Democratic in higher numbers than whites.

The report then describes simulations of future vote totals based on Generation X and Millennials keeping their current political preferences, those generations becoming more conservative over time, or the generation behind them turning more conservative. In each simulation, North Carolina leans more Democratic with each election cycle.

Will North Carolina kids grow up with political violence in the next decade?

Niels Bohr (and many others) said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!” The events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, though, are a warning that chaos can break out in the oldest democracy in the world. If some believe in stolen elections and some believe in vast right-wing conspiracies, we could see more political violence in our children’s lifetimes.

Looking at the key factors that Walter describes in her book, I believe North Carolina could be in the danger zone for political violence during the next decades. It is a state in which demographic projections suggest an electorate that will be increasingly diverse and liberal. But this growing constituency for progressive-liberal reforms may be kept out of power by the flaws in its democracy that I discussed above. That sounds like a recipe for suspicion, antagonism, resentment, and possibly violence to me. Hope I am wrong.

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