Indecent Assembly: The North Carolina Legislature’s Blueprint for the War on Democracy and Equality | By Gene R. Nichol (Blair, 224 pages)
If you’ve spent the last decade obsessing over North Carolina politics, chances are you won’t find anything new in Indecent Assembly, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol’s unflinching 224-page look at the Republican-led legislature.
But that wasn’t the point.
The point, he told me last week, was to detail the General Assembly’s litany of sins for those for whom Phil Berger might not be a recognizable name. More than that, he wanted to contextualize and catalog Republicans’ actions in one volume. Individual acts provoke outrage; the sum of their parts tells a story of ruthless, shameless ideologues who would tear down democratic norms to serve a racialized radical agenda.
In that sense, Indecent Assembly exists as a warning.
“They’re trying to break down the fundaments,” Nichol says. “That’s the main thing the book is about. … That’s a bigger transgression than being wrong or being stupid. It’s a rejection of what it means to be a North Carolinian, what it means to be an American.”
It’s a provocative argument, to be sure. But Gene Nichol has never shied from controversy. In 2008, he was run out as president of William & Mary College in Virginia after refusing to censor a student-funded sex workers’ art show on campus. He returned to UNC—he’d been dean of the School of Law from 1999–2005—and helmed the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity. After Republicans took power in 2011, Nichol wrote columns in The News & Observer denouncing the General Assembly’s economic plans and labeling the state GOP a “white people’s party.”
In 2015, the UNC Board of Governors—appointed by the General Assembly—retaliated by closing the Poverty Center; academic freedom be damned, the UNC System wasn’t about to fund someone critical of its masters. Curiously, Nichol doesn’t talk about that episode in Indecent Assembly. That would have felt too self-serving, he told me.
It’s probably the only big storm he steered clear of. The rest—from HB 2 and Amendment 1 to eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit, from voter ID and gerrymandering to the motorcycle-vagina bill, from circumscribing Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s powers to retaliating against municipalities that had the audacity to elect Democrats—is all there, presented vividly, unsparingly, and unsympathetically.
Last week, I spoke with Nichol about his book and, more broadly, about the last decade of state government. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
INDY: I knew of the events you wrote about. But there was something eye-opening about seeing them compressed into 200 pages. It reads like an indictment. I’m wondering what you had in mind when you set out to write it, and how did that change?
GENE NICHOL: People write a lot about the North Carolina legislature, but they tend to write about one event at a time or one subject matter at the time. They’ll write about what we’re doing on voting rights or voter ID or the Racial Justice Act or HB 2. There’s not very much that looks at it as a whole package. When I did that—I think I said in the first chapter—I went from being already angry to a state beyond that. Because it when you put it all together, it’s noticeably more horrifying.
But the real reason I wanted to do it was that I’m a constitutional lawyer by trade. A big part of why I wrote the book is not just the specifics of what they’re doing. It’s mainly about the fact that for someone like me who studies constitutional law, this is a huge example of having broken the compact.
There’s a whole lot that we take for granted in our system of government. We assume that there’s going to be a lot of back-and-forth on the political front between liberals and conservatives or those who are for economically powerful folks and those who might be pushing for a fairer agenda. We think that there are going to be all these other things. A commitment to democracy is one of them. The foundations of equality is another one. The belief in judicial review. It’s taken us a couple of hundred years to have that seep in. But it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be part of the American experiment.
They’re trying to break down the fundaments. That’s the main thing the book is about. The notion of being an American is not based on tribe or geography or religion or language or the color of your skin. It’s based on a commitment to certain foundational ideals.
Ironically, these guys are attacking the fundamentals of that commitment. They don’t run under the claim that they’re trying to change the American experiment or what it means to be a North Carolinian. But that’s what they’re doing. It’s a very serious undertaking. It means to weaken and overcome the foundations of what we say we believe in as a people.
That’s a bigger transgression than being wrong or being stupid. It’s a rejection of what it means to be a North Carolinian, what it means to be an American.
I’ve seen magazine articles that portray North Carolina as a sort of forerunner for the zero-sum politics in Washington. In a sense, your book reads like a warning. To whom is the warning directed?
Not to be grandiose about it, but it’s for the people of North Carolina. I think most people don’t know how serious the threat to our foundational institutions is. Regular folks have lives to live, they’ve got kids to take care of, they’ve got ballgames to go to. They’re worried about whether they can make ends meet. They’re not sitting around thinking, are these guys trying to destroy the democratic system?
I think it’s a warning nationally as well. I don’t know that North Carolina is seen as a great beacon to the hardest of the hard-right, but it is, for some, providing a roadmap. There is a worry that what begins in Raleigh doesn’t stay in Raleigh.
Much of the book criticizes the General Assembly’s economic policies. Whenever these criticisms have been leveled, Republicans say, “Look at all the growth we’ve had for the last eight years.”
The economy until two months ago, at least, was modestly better than it was in 2008. That’s terrific. But first of all, I don’t buy the claim that that has any [connection] to this horrifying set of economic policies that these folks have created. I have this chart which looks at the unemployment rate in the United States. And in North Carolina, for, I don’t know, the last 40 years, it tracks almost identically, except that the unemployment rate is usually a little higher in North Carolina than it is in the United States. When the federal one goes up, the state one goes up. I don’t believe that North Carolina’s little tail is wagging that big dog.
I focus a lot on people in the bottom third. Are the people in the bottom third actually better off because of this legislature having rejected Medicaid expansion? Are those low-income people really better off having cut a hundred thousand or more people off of food stamps, mostly kids, even though the money was going to come from the federal government? Are they really better off having ditched the Earned Income Tax Credit, being the only [state] in the country [to do so]? Are they really better off having cut the taxes of those at the top and literally raising the taxes of those at the bottom?
If you focus on the bottom third in North Carolina, they’ve suffered tremendously under this regime. And none of the claimed economic benefits that these folks describe alter that.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the stoutest war on poor people that we’ve seen anywhere in the United States in the last 50 years.
There’s so much in the book that cuts across racial lines—voting rights and especially poverty. But when you talk to Republican lawmakers, these aren’t really guys who go around screaming the N-word.
You’re right to link race and poverty. I’ve studied poverty for a long time in North Carolina, and the two are inextricably linked. They have been every day of North Carolina’s existence. They’re running buddies. Now I make the race chapter the first one, because of all the things that we’ve seen in the last 10 years, it’s the most astonishing.
I’ve been in North Carolina for almost 20 years, but I’m not a native. But I have a lot of friends who are old-time North Carolinians, and I think the thing that’s astonished them the most is the idea that you would bring race back into the forefront of North Carolina politics.
[Republicans] are doing it, right? They don’t want it to be talked about. But these folks go into their caucuses—still large majorities in both houses—and they’re all white. They make decisions in those all-white caucuses in which there’s no person of color to stand up and interject, and that’s where they write the rules. That’s where they pass laws which are to the immense detriment of black Tar Heels.
They tend to respond by saying what somebody like [Representative] David Lewis would say, which is, we’re not trying to stop black people from being able to participate in the political process. We’re not trying to hurt them because they’re black; we’re trying to hurt them because they’re Democrats.
They actually govern as a white people’s party in the way that you would expect a white people’s party to govern. And if you raise the question about it, they get furious. But they have a heavily racialized agenda, which is meant to handicap and penalize black Tar Heels. And they think they should not be called on that.
The truth of it is, we’re being governed as if this was a white folks’ legislative caucus, and it has a racialized agenda, which is meant to make life more difficult for people of color. They just don’t want that to be mentioned. It’s like Voldemort—it’s the thing that can’t be mentioned.
It’s apparently not rude to do it. It’s just rude to say it.
When I read the chapter on HB 2, I recalled how much of the argument against HB 2 was framed in economic terms and not in moral terms. On the one hand, you had this dyed-in-the-wool radical-right agenda. And then you have the institutional Democratic response to this thing that offended everybody else in the word that was like, well, it might cost us money.
What you described touches several things. One, of course, is the traditionally frustrating nature of the Democratic Party. If we were looking at the discussion framed around poor people, what you’d say about Democrats is they have long historically ignored poor people. But we’ve learned in the last seven or eight years that there’s something worse than ignoring them, and that’s to actually target them.
When it comes to an array of civil liberties issues, Democrats are historically mush-mouthed. I think there’s a lot of juice, a lot of power, a lot of blood in the veins of movement politics in North Carolina. By that, I mean Moral Mondays but also broader—the teachers and environmental folks, the ACLU folks. There’s a lot of blood in the movement politics of North Carolina, and not nearly enough in the Democratic Party in North Carolina.
I think part of the challenge is that the Democratic Party hasn’t necessarily been strong enough to take full advantage of the movement blood which exists in North Carolina. We’ve had too strong a history for the last 20 years of Democrats being careful about not saying anything, that their words are going to piss somebody off. And when you spend your whole career doing that, you end up unable to be an effective force against the most powerful challenges you face.
Some of that seems like a product of progressive power—or Democratic power—being clustered in metro areas, but the rest of the state being largely white and Republican, and the state has been gerrymandered to give outsize power to those areas.
One of the clearest examples of that was the tremendous dispute over HB 2. So OK, Bruce Springsteen can’t come to town. And there’s not gonna be a basketball tournament in Charlotte, and you’re gonna miss these giant events in Raleigh. But if you’re out in rural North Carolina, I don’t give a shit about that. I don’t care if Bruce Springsteen can’t come to Greensboro or whatever it is. Boycott ’til your heart’s content.
One of the great frustrations that comes from some of the work I’ve done interviewing low-income people across North Carolina—I’ll give you this example. One time, a couple of years ago, I spent several months interviewing low-income folks in Goldsboro, in public housing units. At the same time, I was interviewing people in Wilkes County, which is more Appalachian poverty. There were similar levels of poverty in both places, very intense, chronic poverty. In Wilkes, it was almost all white; in the housing projects in Goldsboro, it was almost all black and Latino.
So I would go interview folks in these immensely dangerous and worrisome housing projects in Goldsboro. Now, those folks in Goldsboro would not have considered the white folks who I was interviewing in Wilkes County to be their allies.
In Wilkes County, when I would interview folks in a 40-year-old mobile home under really terrible circumstances—you know, seven or eight people living in this ramshackle mobile home—but outside, they would have a Trump sign and a Confederate flag. Needless to say, the folks in the low-income housing projects in Goldsboro did not have Trump signs and Confederate flags.
Both of those groups would have considered themselves adversaries. But we also asked them a whole series of questions like, what do you need? Whom do you trust? What do you wish the government would do for you? What do you feel like the challenges are here?
Those two groups of people answered those questions almost exactly the same. If anyone was ever smart enough to help the low-income folks in Goldsboro and low-income folks in Wilkes County realize how much they have in common instead of how much separates them, we could fix our politics in North Carolina. But I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do that.
That reminds me of the LBJ quote about how if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best black man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.
The extent to which, particularly in the American South, that divisions on the basis of race have dominated politics and have led low-income white people to vote against their economic interest consistently, often out of some hope for racial superiority, that’s the cultural and political history of the American South. And it still is. You can look at all these states that have rejected Medicaid. The main thing they have in common was they are members of the Confederacy.
There have been numerous occasions when the General Assembly retaliated against political adversaries: In Greensboro, Senator Trudy Wade tried to change the city council after Democrats got elected. Same with Chad Barefoot and the Wake County Board of Commissioners. HB 2 was a reaction to a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance. Most recently, they tried to go after sheriffs who weren’t cooperating with ICE. They also tried to change how Supreme Court justices got elected, then made judicial elections partisan. Of course, they went after you, too.
Broadly speaking, it seems, it’s become the NCGA’s modus operandi to change the rules when the rules don’t go their way. What do you make of that?
We have these structures of understanding that have made up the operation of the American commitment to constitutional democracy. They include things like judicial review and constitutional accountability, but they also include things like dispersing power to local governments so that it’s not all in the hands of single decision-makers, separation of powers, having three branches of government instead of one. These softer limitations on the operation of American democracy—these guys have just laid waste to them.
For folks in my line of work, it’s been a little bit of a surprise because you thought, surely there’s a more potent commitment to things like freedom of speech, academic freedom, local government authority, the independence of judicial review. We all thought that they were more potent than it turned out that they actually were. They mean nothing to these folks. They have been willing to lay waste to every sort of constitutional restraint in favor of the expansion of their power.
That has become the marching order of Republicans in North Carolina. That’s what the book is about—that they have been willing to lay waste to the traditions of American government and seem not to have a care about it.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.
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