Democrats could be on an unstoppable path toward demographic dominance in North Carolina politics by 2040. According to a report last year from researchers at the Brookings Institute and the Center for American Progress, minority groups will make up 40 percent of the state’s population by 2036. And the Brookings-CAP team projected that the state’s election results would turn solidly Democratic blue well before that date.
Of course, many Republicans dismiss such demographic analyses as “fake news.” But the conduct of Republicans since taking over the General Assembly in 2010 suggests a party that senses a foreboding future. Their leadership has done virtually nothing to develop a durable governing style that could appeal to a broad coalition of voters. It instead has worked to maximize short-term gains and game the political system in its favor.
Back in 2012, when he was House Speaker, now-U.S. Senator Thom Tillis let slip the pessimistic GOP view of North Carolina’s political future. That fall, college students at N.C. State confronted Tillis about the Republicans’ state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. After declaring his support for Amendment 1, Tillis added, “It’s a generational issue. … If it passes, I think it will be repealed within twenty years.”
While Amendment 1 passed by a 65–35 percent margin, North Carolina progressives did not have to wait a generation for its repeal. Just three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court did the job by affirming that same-sex marriage deserved constitutional protection. The next year, Republicans in Raleigh responded with HB 2, banning any local government action supporting LGBTQ rights as well as minimum-wage standards and economic discrimination.
Obscured in the ensuing national condemnation of HB 2 was the fact that the Charlotte City Council’s passage of a strong pro-LGBT ordinance had pushed the Republicans’ reactionary button. And Charlotte now reliably delivers the same kind of supermajority margins for Democrats found in other big cities across the nation. So does Raleigh. In fact, all of North Carolina’s nine cities above one hundred thousand residents—as well as Greenville and Asheville, in the above-ninety-thousand category—are Democratic bastions or trending that way.
The 2.95 million North Carolinians now living in these Democratic cities out-populate the just over 2.2 million in the state’s rural and small-town (or “nonmetropolitan”) counties. The state’s Democratic cities also deliver bigger margins on the whole. In nonmetropolitan counties, pockets of black voters, as well as whites in college towns and in local government centers, can limit the size of Republican victories. And the population gap is expected to grow over the next few decades, as rural and small-town North Carolina continues to empty out.
So is Democratic destiny manifest in North Carolina? If true, Democratic dominance is assured in other purple states—and thus, American politics will also be decisively blue by 2040.
But such a progressive scenario could well be too good to be true.
Geographically speaking, the divide between Democratic cities and Republican rural/small town areas in North Carolina (and other purple states) gives only a partial picture. Indeed, it leaves out the majority of just over 5.2 million “in-between” North Carolinians—those living in metropolitan areas outside the state’s big cities.
A big red wall still stands out in North Carolina’s so-called exurban counties and smaller metropolitan areas beyond the higher-taxing confines of big-city counties. Democrats may want to write off these sources of Republican strength in outer metropolitan North Carolina as merely a function of the state’s soon-to-expire whiteness. But such areas may contain a deep-seated “countrypolitan” resistance to any kind of urban or university-based liberalism. In cultural terms, its informal anthems could remain in the country-populistic vein of Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” remake rather than the rock-elegiac “Carolina on My Mind” of North Carolina expatriate James Taylor.
And such wellsprings of countrypolitan resistance raise a not-so-outside possibility that should deeply concern Democrats about a post-Trump era. This is the prospect that new non-white Republican politicians could harness this countrypolitan instinct into a powerful political persuasion. Although her association with Trump could plague her own political future, former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley might be the harbinger with her Indian-immigrant family’s version of the American Dream.
And if Democrats fall into the trap of presenting themselves as the New Establishment, they will be inviting such a countrypolitan repudiation that could spread to all but the most highly educated and progressive voters. European versions of this scenario are already developing in the French Yellow Vest movement against Emmanuel Macron’s elitist liberalism and British voters’ rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership. Nonwhite Republican candidates in the Nikki Haley mold could significantly split the Democratic hope of a dominant multicultural coalition in a new North Carolina and America along education-class lines.
Bluntly put, the destiny of a new Democratic progressivism in North Carolina and the nation is not at all manifest. The political future may remain up for grabs in 2040 and beyond.
Pope “Mac” McCorkle is the director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read the rest of our 2040 predictions
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