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.