When I was growing up in eastern North Carolina, virtually all voting adults were Democrats, although our backdoor neighbors were Republicans. My family considered them akin to space aliens. Conversely, Republicans who populated the western part of our state, though in smaller numbers, felt the same about the handful of Democrats out there. It was even possible to check a single box on your ballot to vote a straight Democratic or straight Republican ticket, because both parties expected—and often got—total loyalty.
In the decades since, North Carolina has become a competitive “purple” state, and this year, an actual battleground state, attracting hoards of media outlets and Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates themselves.
Our U.S. Senate race was the most expensive in our nation’s history, topping $287M. President Trump became a regular visitor to Fayetteville Regional Airport for campaign rallies, ultimately carrying North Carolina and pulling down-ballot Republican candidates with him.
So how did we get here from a state dominated by one political party for more than a century?
We have grown significantly, and North Carolina is now the 9th largest state, with more than 10 million residents. My childhood was lived in a state of small towns scattered across a wide, narrow state. Today, we have major cities, the largest being Charlotte and Raleigh. Fayetteville is our 6th largest city with more than 200,000 residents, compared with not quite 21,000 in 1960.
With North Carolina’s growth has come more diversity (Fayetteville has long been diverse because of a strong military presence) and a more highly educated population, clustering in metropolitan areas.
That means the political clout of our cities threatens to outstrip the clout of rural areas, a reality driving the great urban-rural divide of wealth and education and its accompanying resentment.
Think about this. For almost all of the 20th century, North Carolina was a reliable Democratic state. In 2020, as of this writing, we supported the Republican Presidential and Senatorial nominees, reelected a Democratic Governor, elected a Republican Lieutenant Governor who has never held public office, and affirmed Republican control of the General Assembly. These outcomes required considerable ticket-splitting, with individual voters checking both Democratic and Republican boxes for whatever reasons of their own. My parents would be stunned.
Most North Carolinians would probably say that political competitiveness is a positive thing—that choice makes our government stronger and better. Whether that happens in actual practice is debatable, but it is clear that we are purple for the foreseeable future. That means that North Carolina, like other states and millions of individual Americans, must figure out how to go forward without the name-calling and partisan rancor that has afflicted and tortured us in recent years.
Make no mistake. The United States is at a critical moment in our history. We are so divided, it is almost like we are speaking different languages. We listen and watch only our own truths, not those of “the other.” Debates are underway about a coming second civil war. The New York Times ran a long article in its Sunday magazine last weekend entitled “How Do You Know When Society is About to Fall Apart?” It quotes an academician in this field, Joseph Tainter, “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”
None of us can fix what is threatening our nation, but we can address it in our own lives. Our neighbors—Democrats or Republicans—are not our enemies. They are people with different opinions, not crazed “others.” If we ordinary Americans cannot bridge this divide in our own lives and ultimately as a nation, we may not collectively survive much beyond the tumultuous agony that was the 2020 general election.