North Carolina's New Rainbow Coalition

How identity politics helped give Democrats one victory in a disastrous election cycle

Martha Waggoner / AP

Identity politics are dead, and the 2016 election killed them.

That, at least, is how some pundits and academics explain the Democrats’ embarrassing loss, which gave Republicans one of the most commanding party holds of federal and state power in history. The argument, offered most capably by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, attributes Hillary Clinton’s defeat to her insistence on focusing on narrow identities and social issues instead of using the language of class-rooted universalism that her husband embraced in the ’90s. “To paraphrase Bernie Sanders,” Lilla writes, “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.”

In North Carolina, meanwhile—barring a miracle or successful statewide ballot challenge from Republican incumbent Pat McCrory—a diverse coalition of voters and a strong multi-partisan activist movement coalesced around a set of social and economic issues to give Democrat Roy Cooper the governor’s house. Though Donald Trump still carried the state in the presidential race, Cooper eked out what appears to be a very narrow victory on the strength of an appeal to identity politics—including riding the backlash against the most widely-known bathroom law in the country.

There’s a reason North Carolina has been at the center of so many conversations and controversies this election cycle, and that’s because it’s a microcosm of sorts for the nation’s politics. Its interior corridor is filled with metropolitan areas populated by the people of color, college-educated white people, and students that Democrats count on most reliably. The rural eastern and western thirds of the state skew Republican and white, but also contain liberals living in mountain enclaves, descendants of slaves on the inner coastal plain, and New South blue-dog union Democrats.

The state is home both to a growing cadre of financial elites in Charlotte and a working-class manufacturing base that has been hurt by industrial contraction and offshoring over the past few decades. It has seen a surge in Latino voters in the same period. And like the country it reflects, in the past 10 years North Carolina has been home to several controversial elections laws, anti-transgender-rights laws, unrest over black deaths at the hands of police, a revitalized conservative movement, and an accompanying counter-movement of motivated progressives, Independents, and moderates.

From its beginnings, that protest movement in North Carolina has been forged over concerns that don’t fit neatly along the lines of class or party ideology. When I went to Raleigh to report on the “Moral Movement” that forms its core, the first thing that I noticed was the diversity of the crowds. They included not just the standard liberal spectrum touted on stage at the Democratic National Convention, but also older, whiter longtime Republicans from the most rural parts of the state. This was precisely the kind of coalition that Lilla and others hope to build with a post-identity liberalism.

At the center of that movement, however, was neither a class-first neo-Marxian in the vein of Sanders nor a triangulating universalist in the vein of Clinton, but the state NAACP, a group that has never been accused of eschewing identity politics. The North Carolina NAACP, its president Reverend William J. Barber II, and a collection of affiliated clergy members became natural leaders in state protests following a Republican takeover at the state level which enabled Republican lawmakers to pass a sweeping slate of regressive reforms, including an assault on voting rights that has since been found by courts to be naked racial discrimination—but might presage larger voter suppression efforts in Trump’s looming presidency.

Their “Moral Movement” expanded its ranks not by appealing to a class-based ethos, but by casting economic, social, and political issues as moral dilemmas and emphasizing empathy. “When we started in 2007, there were 1.6 million poor people in North Carolina,” Barber says. “That’s a moral issue. We had not had a raise in the minimum wage. We did not have health care. We needed to strengthen our civil-rights laws in this state.” Though the voter suppression laws put the political focus squarely on questions of race, the Moral Movement managed to both explicitly address its racial animus while simultaneously expanding its reach beyond people of color.

Other political maneuvers by Republicans in North Carolina pushed more voters into direct opposition. The General Assembly and Governor McCrory’s 2013 decision to repeal the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allowed black death-row inmates to challenge their convictions on the grounds of demonstrated racial bias, was cited often at Moral Monday protests as a key grievance. McCrory also declined to expand Medicaid to all low-income individuals under the Affordable Care Act, struggled to clean up a massive toxic coal-ash spill in Rockingham County, and signed conservative laws reducing maximum unemployment benefits and opening up the state’s Appalachian regions to fracking. Across the state, thousands of activists across identity lines joined in protests against this collection of laws. Barber told me that one of his early surprises was in the size of “Mountain Moral Mondays” protests in the mostly white western part of the state.

It was the passage of the H.B. 2 “bathroom bill” earlier this year by those same politicians that completed the galvanization of the anti-McCrory coalition in North Carolina. That law not only eliminated local protections for transgender people, but also preempted all municipal authority to pass civil-rights, minimum-wage, and workplace protection laws beyond those recognized by the state. Backlash in the LGBT community against the law was fierce and immediate, and groups like state LGBT-rights organization EqualityNC began to mobilize their own constituencies.

“We said in the wake of an unprecedented anti-LGBT bill that we had to do something unprecedented," EqualityNC’s director, Chris Sgro, said. That included a huge investment in pushing not only members of the LGBT community to the ballot, but also reaching out to voters outside of the community who found common ground in their disagreement with McCrory’s record.

Other groups came on board as well, and helped turn public opinion against H.B. 2. By May, 44 percent of the people in the state and 28 percent of Republican voters opposed the law, according to Public Policy Polling. It also became a key issue in the clergy-led Moral Movement, where activists again cast it as a common moral issue, as well as a focal point of business diversion and boycotts of North Carolina, culminating in the withdrawal of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte and parts of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. By the election, most people polled believed the law hurt the state, and two-thirds of voters in preliminary exit polls disagreed with the law. Judging by the disparate outcomes between Trump and McCrory, something beyond the standard lines of race and party seemed to be at work in McCrory’s loss. Opposition to H.B. 2 appears to be the strongest contender for a common thread.

One of the most important arguments for opponents of the law—and one that complicates the argument that class should supersede identity—is that while H.B. 2 has been cast aside by many as a “social” concern, it and most laws that target minority groups are fundamentally economic in nature, and contribute to enduring class disparities. “What we understood about H.B. 2 that Governor McCrory never understood,” Sgro says, “is that it was a bill that was about discrimination, but it wasn't just about the LGBT community. It attacked people of color and their ability to bring suit in state courts. It attacked minimum and living wage laws, and it attacked municipal authority. And the sum total of attacks on vibrant, diverse communities across the state is also an attack on the economy.”

And although H.B. 2’s universal economic impacts were easy to discern, both from its preemption of local wage laws and the boycotts that followed, the same is generally true of the other identity issues at stake in North Carolina, including voting rights. The 2013 North Carolina voting law did have explicit discriminatory intent along racial lines, but as evidenced by early-voting gaps in the state, it also would have affected poor white voters in suppressed areas as well. Such is true more broadly of disenfranchisement, racialized drug policy and racial economic exclusion: Stubborn inequities among working-class and poor white people might at least partly result from collateral damage of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.

That movements led by people of color and members of the LGBT community who championed identity issues defeated McCrory should enhance the debate about identity politics and its usefulness. The Moral Movement seems to take its cues directly from Jesse Jackson’s famed “Rainbow Coalition,” which itself is a scion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and Fred Hampton’s original Rainbow Coalition, each of which were led by black, identity-centric leaders who also managed to find plenty of common ground with poor white people. Those movements stressed the confluence and interconnectedness of issues like racial segregation and class inequality, an idea that has since been refined through the lens of gender and sexuality by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who describes it as “intersectionality.

In the governor’s race in North Carolina, at least, those intersections may have mattered and provided one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2016 for Democrats. Trump, of course, still carried the state, which should temper activists’ hopes of cleanly exporting their model nationwide. That may be because Trump had no policy record, while McCrory could be directly tied to policies that many voters felt had hurt them.

Given that Trump appears likely to adopt environmental and health-care policies similar to those pursued by North Carolina Republicans, and that voting rights and religious-freedom laws in many states might move towards North Carolina’s under a Trump administration, by 2018 and 2020, he will have established a clear record for voters to assess. Unfortunately for people fighting for stricter environmental laws, universal healthcare, and more voting-rights protections, that record entails real losses for their agenda. Figuring out why Trump won North Carolina and McCrory lost it is an unenviable natural experiment for progressives.

Still, for liberals, the successes in cross-party activism and intersectional dialogue in North Carolina cannot be ignored. Perhaps that approach can be expanded nationally by thinking of fluid intersections, and emphasizing morality and empathy instead of rigid class hierarchies and pure economic self-interest. If the governor’s race is any example, Democrats and progressive allies can fight their next fight without losing or diminishing their identities.

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