Time for Geezers to Go?

Somebody told me, “You’ve touched a nerve.”

Last week, I wrote a blog/newspaper column titled “We’re Governed by Geezers“. I noted how old our leaders are today and how dominant Baby Boomers are in politics. I said, “It’s time to pass the torch.”

That post got more comments than almost anything else I’ve written.

Not surprisingly, younger readers agreed. One emailed: “I have a regular breakfast group that is comprised entirely of Gen Xers. We are reading ‘A Generation of Sociopaths.’ This (the blog) could be the Cliff Notes.”

I looked up the book. The full title is “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boom Betrayed America”

It doesn’t sound very complimentary.

Another person wrote, “No offense, Gary, but GenX would like y’all to get out of the way and let us fix this s–t.” 

Someone added, “Pu-leeze.”

Another said, “The Boomers have more than had their shot at leading. It’s time to pass the gavel. Now.”

I sense some hostility.

One GenXer (I think), said, “Yes, but not until after this election.”

Some of my peers joined the chorus: “This 65-year-old agrees with you.”

A high school classmate recommended reading “The Baby Boom” by P.J. O’Rourke, one of the funniest writers around. Subtitle: “How It Got That Way…And It Wasn’t My Fault…And I’ll Never Do It Again.”

A Republican friend reminded me, “Johnny Edwards was 45 when you got him elected.”

True. And Jim Hunt was 39 when he got elected Governor.

Jim Hunt was elected Governor at age 39

I was reminded that some things never change. Back in 2009, Scott Mooneyham wrote a column about the North Carolina General Assembly: “Legislators Look Bit Long of Tooth”

He wrote then, “57 of the 170 House and Senate members are now 65 years old or older. A decade ago, the number was 46 and two decades ago 37.”

One Geezer, who’s got about 10 years on me, was philosophical about aging: “Frankly, I think it’s a pretty nice place to be.  When I forget something now, I have an excuse.  When I have an occasional good idea, I’m pleased when those around me think I’ve still got it. And, best of all, my grandchildren treat me with a little more respect.”

Still, he added, “my kids don’t get it yet.”

Some Geezers were defiant: “Joe Biden is 2 years older than I am. I may be tapping mid-70 but I damn well feel like I’m in my early 50s!” She added, “We are activists, precinct officials, phone-bankers, fund-raisers and more. And we love it. Joe Biden is one of us!”

And there was this from fellow columnist D.G. Martin of Chapel Hill: “80 is the new 40. I’m not passing the torch just yet.”

I like your spirit, D.G.

Pandemic Imperils Public Schools

The Covid-19 pandemic shows how we dump society’s problems on public schools, but don’t give them enough money to meet those challenges.

Six months of lockdown should remind us that schools provide more than education.

Working parents depend on schools for childcare. Children in poverty often depend on schools for decent meals and safe shelter.  Many children depend on schools for the love, care and attention they don’t get at home.

Schools have to protect students from society’s epidemic of evils – from bullying in the lunchroom to sexual abuse to vicious gunmen with military assault weapons.

During COVID, parents have learned the hard way that home-schooling can get old fast. They’ve learned that teachers aren’t paid nearly enough.

Underpaid as they are, teachers would take a bullet to save their students. Do we also expect them to risk catching a vicious virus – and passing it on to their own families – so we can get our kids out of the house? 

A teacher told me that many of her peers are preparing wills as they prepare for back-to-school.

Crowded hallway in a Georgia high school last week

Some parents send their children to private schools because they are more willing than public schools to reopen. Private Thales Academy in Wake County reopened its schools in July. Its Knightdale campus immediately reported a Covid case. Then a case at Thales’ Wake Forest campus forced the entire fourth grade to be quarantined for at least two weeks.

One Wake County principal pleaded with parents not to turn to private schools. Schools’ budgets are based on attendance; if attendance drops, budgets will be cut and teachers and staff, let go.

Unlike private schools and charter schools, traditional public schools can’t pick their students. They have to take whoever shows up and provide whatever they need.

The same politicians who push hardest for private schools are pushing hardest for public schools to reopen.

President Trump said in July that public schools teach children “to hate their own country.” Now he says they should reopen fully. In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and State Senator Phil Berger criticize Governor Roy Cooper for not ordering all public schools to reopen. 

Ferrel Guillory, who has observed North Carolina politics and government for nearly 50 years as a journalist, UNC-Chapel Hill professor and Vice Chairman of EducationNC, wrote recently that:

“…(A)fter their party won the governorship and solid legislative majorities in 2012, Republican lawmakers went on a tax-cut spree, reducing sales, corporate, and individual income taxes. Tax changes since 2013, according to a pre-pandemic joint assessment of legislative and administration budget staffs, reduced annual general fund revenues by more than $4 billion in 2019-2020.”

Public schools could use some of that $4 billion today.

Governor Cooper says K-12 schools, colleges, and universities need federal money:

“Without it, these institutions will not be able to purchase the essential cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and other materials necessary to create a safe and productive learning environment, including the ability to pay teachers and staff who will be on the frontlines of the pandemic. We also must ensure our ability to address nutrition for students, both those in school and those distance learning.”

Plus, the state is under the Leandro court order to meet the North Carolina Constitution’s requirement of “a sound, basic education for all children.” Price tag: $427 million.

As Guillory noted, we need “a serious open discussion of revenues required for educational advancement.”

The pandemic shows how much we need our public schools – and how much we expect of them. Our support should match our expectations. We should put our money where our children are.

We’re Governed by Geezers

When Baby Boomers protested the ills of society in the 1960s, we didn’t trust anybody over 30. Now that we’re in our 60s and 70s, we don’t seem to trust anybody under 70.

President Trump is 74. Joe Biden is 77. Biden beat Bernie Sanders (78) and Elizabeth Warren (71) for the nomination. Nancy Pelosi is 80. Mitch McConnell is 78.

This gerontocracy, like most things in America today, reflects the aging of Boomers. So many of us were born between 1944 and 1964 that we’ve dominated America economically, socially, culturally and politically as we’ve moved into our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and now 70s.

Bill Clinton was the first Boomer President, and he was elected in 1992 – nearly 30 years ago. George W. Bush and Trump are Boomers. Barack Obama was a late Boomer, born in 1961. 

Boomers will tell you that 70 is the new 50. We pride ourselves on our health, our fitness and our eternal youthfulness. We go on and on about it, like the gabby old geezers we are.

Actually, we’re just lucky. We happened to be born in the greatest nation on earth at the very time it went through an unprecedented economic boom with huge improvements in health care and the greatest gains in nutrition, education and quality of life in history.

We took it all for granted. We figured it was our birthright. We expected it to go on indefinitely without us having to do much. Like when we were kids.

Instead, young Americans today face unprecedented economic inequality and insecurity, unreliable health care, an undeniable climate crisis, social unrest and an uncertain future. 

We Boomers haven’t made the kind of sacrifices and investments our parents and grandparents made for us. Investments like the GI Bill, the Interstate highway system, the space program, vaccines, hospitals, science, research and, most of all, the greatest expansion of education opportunities by any nation at any time.

Leaders in both parties, like Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, did all that. They weathered the Depression, they won World War II, and they secured our future. 

They were the Greatest Generation. Boomers are the Luckiest Generation. It’s time we pay it forward to the next generation.

America has always embraced young leaders. President Kennedy was 43 when he was elected in 1960. So was North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was 35. Martin Luther King was 34 when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. John Lewis was 23 when he spoke that day.

People we think of as old were young by today’s standards. Lyndon Johnson was 55 when he became President; he was only 65 when he died. Richard Nixon, who always seemed old, was just four years older than JFK. Franklin Roosevelt was 50 when he was elected President; he was 63 when he died.

James Madison was 36 years old during the Constitutional Convention

Hamilton fans know that many Founding Fathers were young. Alexander Hamilton was in his early 30s (his birthdate is disputed) and James Madison was 36 when they forged the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Alexander Hamilton was in his early 30s during the Constitutional Convention

President Kennedy said in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” He described that generation as “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.” 

That could be said, I submit, of a new generation of Americans today. They’re ready to lead. They’re leading the protests and the changes sweeping across America now.

It’s time to pass the torch to them. 

A Readers’ Guide to Reading Polls

“The polls were wrong in 2016. Why should I believe them now?”

The more polls you see this year, the more you’ll hear that question. As someone who spent 40-plus years reading polls, analyzing results and questioning pollsters, here are my tips about reading polls.

The first lesson I learned was in Jim Hunt’s first race for Governor in 1976. Our pollster, Peter Hart, always cautioned us: “A poll is a snapshot in time” – not a prediction. Opinions are fluid, and voters change their minds.

In fact, campaigns use polls to figure out how to change voters’ minds. How will they react when they learn new information about your candidate and your opponent? What are the best arguments for your candidate and against the opponent?

The polls you read about probably aren’t as accurate as the polls campaigns use. Why? Because a campaign – a good campaign, anyway – spends a lot of money making sure its polls are high quality. But most public polls are paid for by media outlets or universities. They have an incentive to hold down costs, which holds down quality.

This does not mean, however, that you should trust what campaigns say their polls say. Believe me, they don’t tell you the truth. They creatively use the numbers to keep their supporters – and their donors – motivated.

You should especially be wary of polls done by political groups that have a clear partisan or ideological tilt. They’re not above making up results.

The proliferation of polls can be confusing, but also clarifying. Look at the totality of polls.Even if the exact numbers vary, do the polls generally agree on the state of the race?

Take the Trump-Biden race now. While the numbers differ, most polls agree that Biden has opened up a significant lead in the popular vote – bigger, in fact, than Hillary Clinton ever had.

Biden leads by double digits as coronavirus takes a toll on the president, Post-ABC poll finds

Washington Post headline , July 20, 2020

But we all know that what matters is the handful of battleground states, and the race is closer in those states. That’s why they’re called battleground states. Good polling from those states can be hard to come by. 

Pay attention to whether polls survey registered voters or likely voters. A recent national poll showed Biden up by 15 among registered voters, but by 11 among likely voters.

You can learn a lot by watching what campaigns do. A campaign that changes campaign managers in July, as Trump’s just did, is not a campaign that thinks it’s winning.

You can look at the other way to keep score in politics: fundraising. This year, Democrats are raising a ton of money, even outraising Republican incumbents. That’s significant.

But the question persists: Why were so many polls wrong in 2016?

A big reason: It’s hard to predict turnout. Will Black turnout in North Carolina be 18 or 22%? In 2016, Black turnout in North Carolina dropped from 2008 and 2012, while Trump’s famous base was highly motivated. The percentage of high-school educated voters versus college-educated matters a lot.

In 2016, the polls may have created their own psychology. Many voters disliked both Trump and Clinton. Maybe they believed the experts who said Trump couldn’t win and voted for him as a silent protest against President Hillary Clinton.

Maybe the experts convinced themselves Trump couldn’t win, even though the warning signs for Clinton were clear in the polling.

To be good at politics, you need two things: good data and a good gut. This year, the data and my gut tell me the tide favors Democrats. But, of course, that’s just a snapshot in time.

Has Racial Politics Changed for Good?

If you’ve been around Democratic politics in North Carolina and the South for long, you’re asking today: “Is the backlash coming this time? Or is race-baiting politics finally dead?”

You ask because you’ve seen race-baiting and “white backlash” work before.

Today, maybe, things have changed. Maybe the videos of police violence, the Black Lives Matter protests – and the fact we’ve been home watching it all – have fundamentally changed how white Americans look at our past, our present problems and our future together in this country.

A veteran Democrat from Eastern North Carolina thinks so: “There’s been a seismic shift. There’s more recognition of the evils of the past.” He thinks that’s especially true of young people, but also among older whites.

Another North Carolina native, nationally known pollster Harrison Hickman, said, “I have not seen any direct questions about racial attitudes. What I have seen is a sharp increase in support for Black Lives Matter. I think something is going on, and I think the protests have made a difference.”

He added, “It’s possible that white poll respondents are giving ‘socially acceptable’ answers, and it’s possible that their attitudes, and poll answers, will revert with the passage of time.  But one difference this time is that leaders are not waiting around to see if things will change.”

Elected leaders everywhere are taking down Confederate statues and monuments. Mississippi took down its flag. Washington’s NFL team will no longer be the Redskins.

Confederate monument no longer looms over the west side of NC’s Capitol

The change may be hurting President Trump’s reelection chances.

The New York Times reported this month, “From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Mr. Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Mr. Trump’s policies.”

A Monmouth University nationwide poll in late June found that “67% of the public says racial and ethnic discrimination in the U.S. is a big problem, while just 17% say it is not a problem at all.”

There’s a big partisan gap. While 86% of white Democrats and Independents said discrimination is a big problem, only 40% of Republicans agree. 

Some Democratic strategists fear that calls to “defund police” might turn off voters who are open to reforming police practices.

They remember history. Race has decided North Carolina elections since 1950, when Frank Porter Graham lost a Senate race to Willis Smith. Smith’s campaign circulated flyers headlined: “White People: Wake Up.”

Willis Smith campaign flyer, 1950

In the 1960s, white Southerners began abandoning the Democratic Party after it embraced civil rights. 

In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater won the South by voting against the Civil Rights Act, though Lyndon Johnson swamped him everywhere else. In 1968, Richard Nixon won the Presidency by following the Southern Strategy of Strom Thurmond, the old South Carolina segregationist.

From 1972 to 1996, Jesse Helms won five Senate races with blatantly racist campaigns. That’s why Chowan University took his name off a campus building this month.

The election of a black President in 2008 raised hopes that we were past race. Then came Donald Trump.

Maybe today – 12 years after Barack Obama’s election, 60 years after the Greensboro sit-ins and 160 years after the Civil War – change has finally come.

Yes, 2020 Could Get Worse

This year is just half over, and it could get twice as bad.

The Covid pandemic could keep getting worse.

The economic collapse and high unemployment could last for months and years.

The next four months could bring the meanest, ugliest and most divisive political campaigns ever.

A year that began with impeachment of the President could end with a disputed election and a constitutional crisis.

The election may not end on Election Day. Long lines at polling places may delay final results. There may be a lot of mail-in ballots to count. That could take days or weeks. The results of last month’s New York state primaries were delayed a week because so many people voted absentee.

Contested counts could go to the courts, even the Supreme Court, like Florida in 2000. Or to Congress. There is speculation that, if President Trump loses, he might claim fraud or foul or even refuse to step down from power.

Polls now suggest there are three likely scenarios for the presidential election: a narrow win for Trump, a narrow loss for Trump or a blowout win for Joe Biden.

Of course, as conventional wisdom says, anything can happen in four months. This election, like 2016, could turn upside-down in the final days.

There were three October surprises in 2016: Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, the Russian/Wikileaks leak of Democratic emails and, in the crucial final days, the FBI reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. 

But history shows that incumbent Presidents rarely fare well when Americans are in a foul mood. In late June, a Pew Research poll found that:

“(T)he share of the public saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country has plummeted from 31% in April, during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, to just 12% today.”

Pew said only 17% of Americans feel “proud” about the state of the country.

That’s a dismal climate for an incumbent. The last two Presidents who ran for reelection in times like this both lost: Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

In February 1991, after the successful Persian Gulf war, Bush had the highest approval ratings of any President ever, 90%. But his ratings fell as the country fell into a deep recession. In November 1992, he got 38% of the popular vote. Bill Clinton won 43% and Ross Perot, 19.

Bush, in a way, was a victim of his own success in the Gulf war. Americans figured that if he could win the war, he could fix the economy. But if he didn’t fix the economy, he either didn’t understand how bad things were – or he didn’t care.

Clinton (“I feel your pain”) won on empathy.

Americans’ mood today reminds me of 1980. Then, we’d gone through a string of bad years and bad news: Watergate, Vietnam, oil shortages, a recession and the straw that broke President Carter’s back, the Iran hostage crisis. 

In July 1979, Carter gave a nationally televised speech in which he said America was “lacking (in) confidence and a sense of community.” It was called his “malaise” speech, though Carter never used the word.

He got trounced in the election by Ronald Reagan. 

Morning in America

I didn’t agree with Reagan on much of anything. In my view, his “government is the problem” philosophy created many of today’s problems. But I grant Reagan this: He helped restore Americans’ spirit, self-confidence and belief in themselves.

When he ran for reelection in 1984, his theme was, “It’s morning again in America.”

We could use a little Morning in America today. 

Elect the President by Popular Vote?

From police to portraits, from statues to school buildings, Americans are taking a new look at our racial – and racist – past. One legacy of that past is the Electoral College for electing Presidents.

You may think it takes a constitutional amendment to change that. Not so. An ingenuous workaround is working its way around the country, and North Carolina could become part of it. 

We don’t elect Presidents the way we elect everything else, from City Council to Congress. For President, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the total of its two Senators and members of Congress – 538 in all. To be President, a candidate has to win enough states to get 270 electoral votes.

You don’t have to win the popular vote. Both George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College. It happened three times in the 19thCentury: 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes) and 1888 (Benjamin Harrison). It could happen again this year.

Because of 2000 and 2016, the issue has become partisan. But reform has support from Republicans, like former National Chair Michael Steele and some state-level officials.

Let’s take off our partisan glasses and look at history.

The Electoral College was a compromise in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers didn’t trust a “democratic mob” to elect a President. Instead, the people would elect wise, sober “electors” to pick the President. Elitism beat out populism.

Slavery came in when it came to deciding how many electors each state would have. Southern states wouldn’t go for assigning electors according to free white residents only. Then the North would dominate. The result was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. 

Some 40 percent of the people living in the South were slaves. Virginia, where slaves were 60 percent of the population, got 12 electoral votes, more than one-fourth of the 46 required then to win the presidency. 

For 32 of the nation’s first 36 years, a slave-holding Virginian occupied the White House (John Adams from Massachusetts was the exception).

The Civil War ended slavery, but not the Electoral College. The Civil War also changed the nation from a collection of states (“The United States are…”) to an indivisible nation (“The United States is…”)

Still, the Electoral College endures.  

Abolishing it by constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote by Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That isn’t going to happen.

A group called National Popular Vote is pushing an interstate compact that would keep the Electoral College but ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes President.

How? By getting states with a total of 270 electoral votes to assign their votes to the popular vote winner nationally, not the winner in their states.

To date, states with 196 electoral votes have joined the compact. The bill has been introduced by Democratic legislators in North Carolina (15 electors, maybe 16 soon), but it’s not going anywhere in the Republican legislature.

At its virtual state convention in June, the North Carolina Democratic Party endorsed the idea.

The compact’s supporters argue that Presidential elections aren’t truly national; they’re decided in just six to ten battleground states. The 40-some other states are predictably Democratic or Republican. Sometimes North Carolina is a battleground, sometimes not.

With a national popular vote, every American’s vote counts the same. Candidates would have an incentive to campaign everywhere for every vote.

Is this an idea whose time has come? It may come here if Democrats take the legislature in 2020.

Taking Down the Confederacy

It was a jarring sight. The Confederate flag was flying above the State Capitol building in Raleigh.

No, this wasn’t the Civil War. It was May 10, 1977.

Jim Hunt had been Governor just four months. I was his press secretary, and I was on my way to the press office in the Capitol that beautiful spring morning when I saw the flag. It stopped me in my tracks.

I asked the Capitol historic staff about it. They said it was Confederate Memorial Day and, by tradition, the Confederate flag flew over the Capitol every May 10. That was the date of Stonewall Jackson’s death, and the date Jefferson Davis was captured after the war.

I don’t recall what happened next; nor can anyone I’ve asked. But somebody talked to somebody, and the flag came down that morning.

I do recall what happened then: Thad Eure went ballistic.

Eure was North Carolina’s long-time Secretary of State. First elected in 1936, he called himself “the oldest rat in the Democratic barn.”

Thad Eure

He was also an unreconstructed Southerner. He liked to wave the Confederate flag at UNC football games. He was the author of the notorious Speaker Ban Law in 1963.

Eure complained loudly about taking down the flag. Some legislators joined him. It was such a big stink that a compromise eventually was worked out. In the future, the Confederate national flag – the “Stars and Bars” – would be flown on the date, not the notorious flag that is a symbol for racism and a banner for racists.

The Confederate national flag

I don’t know how long that practice went on. But it was still too long.

I thought about that day when Governor Roy Cooper ordered Confederate monuments removed from Capitol Square. 

I thought about how many years so many of us took for granted those Confederate symbols and statues – and much, much worse.

I thought about the Ambassador Theater, Raleigh’s finest, one block down from the Capitol on Fayetteville Street. Blacks couldn’t sit with white movie-goers; they had to sit in the upstairs balcony.

When the Raleigh Caps minor-league baseball team played in Devereaux Meadow (I saw Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run there once), Blacks had to sit in a separate section along the left-field line.

The Sears store in Cameron Village, where Harris Teeter is now, had “white” and “colored” bathrooms and water fountains.

Jesse Helms was on WRAL (“The Voice of Free Enterprise”) every night, fulminating against Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, Terry Sanford, the “liberal News & Observer” and communist agitators behind the “so-called civil rights movement.”

In those days, TV stations signed off the air late at night. Most stations played the national anthem over video of the American flag. Not WRAL. It played a slow, mournful version of “Dixie” over photos of mossy plantations and Civil War battlefields.

I went to Raleigh public schools for 12 years, after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. I never had a Black student in my classrooms. There were few Blacks when I went to N.C. State in the late 1960s.

At some point in the 60s, many white Southerners realized that the old ways were wrong. An older friend remembered going to UNC, hearing about the civil rights movement and suddenly realizing, “Everything I’d accepted about race all my life was just wrong.”

It was wrong, and it was wrong for way too long.

Take it down, Governor. Take it all down.

Politics in the Pews

Race and religion have always shaped America’s politics. Race now dominates the 2020 debate, but religion will play a crucial role. It always does.

Churches are on the front lines of protests against racism. People of faith, black and white, may not be packing the pews because of Covid-19, but they’re standing up and speaking out.

In white evangelical churches, some people view the protests as riots, lawlessness and one more sign that America is on the wrong path. These are the people President Trump was signaling when he held up that Bible.

Lt. Governor Dan Forest has deeper roots among these evangelical Christians than any Republican gubernatorial candidate before him. When North Carolina’s original Covid-19 restrictions covered churches, Forest told pastors the political left is using the pandemic in a war against churches:

“There is no doubt that there are people that are on the left that are using this to pull certain levers to see how far that they can go. How far are they able to push? How long can they keep churches shut down? How long will Christians be silent on this matter before they stand up?”

I learned the hard way that those voters can be crucial. When Governor Jim Hunt ran against Senator Jesse Helms in 1984, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had a goal of registering 100,000 new voters for Helms through fundamentalist churches.

Hunt got swamped in many of those precincts, especially in rural areas and small towns. He lost by about 86,000 votes, 52-48 percent.

In 1980, the Moral Majority played a big part in Ronald Reagan’s election. Ironically, he beat Jimmy Carter, whose openness about his born-again faith in the 1976 campaign made some Democrats uncomfortable. 

Elizabeth Dole, who succeeded Helms in the Senate, courted evangelicals and “prayer warriors.” But she hurt herself in her 2008 reelection race with an ad suggesting that Kay Hagan, her Democratic opponent, was affiliated with atheists who wanted to remove references to God from the public arena. The ad ran Hagan’s photo with another woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Dole lost.

After Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, evangelicals pushed for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2016, the legislature passed the “bathroom bill,” which Lt. Governor Forest and evangelicals strongly supported. Former Governor Pat McCrory’s quick decision to sign that bill may have cost him reelection.

Democrats have their own church ties. African-American churches host voter registration and Election Day turnout drives. Candidates flock to churches on Sundays.

North Carolina has a tradition of progressive white churches. Just as they support today’s protests, they were active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Religion and politics go way back here.

In 1928, anti-Catholic feeling was so strong that solidly Democratic North Carolina went 55-45 for Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, a Catholic.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy faced anti-Catholic prejudice. When he campaigned in North Carolina that September, he was asked – in a question his campaign may have arranged – if he’d take orders from the Pope. Kennedy said no; he would take an oath as President, on the Bible, to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Period.

He carried North Carolina. He won big margins in eastern counties that were heavily Democratic then and are heavily evangelical now.

America may have separation of church and state, but politics and religion are inseparable. Where you sit on Sunday says a lot about how you vote on Election Day.

Sic semper tyrannis

We Americans have no tolerance for tyrants.

We fought a revolution to get rid of the King. We fought a civil war to get rid of slavery. We fought World War II to get rid of the Nazis.

Earlier this year, people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the “tyranny” of Covid-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.

Reopen NC protesters called Governor Roy Cooper a “tyrant.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was hung in effigy at the state Capitol, with a sign reading “Sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants,” what John Wilkes Booth yelled after he shot Abraham Lincoln. 

But the Covid restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis, a crisis that isn’t over yet. 

In recent weeks, thousands of times more Americans have protested against real tyranny – the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African-Americans for centuries and continues today.

First it was slavery, America’s original sin. Then it was the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction terror. Then it was the Black Codes governing the conduct of freed slaves, then Jim Crow and white supremacy. 

In North Carolina, it was the organized massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898 and the armed overthrow of a legally elected government, a story told in David Zucchino’s book “Wilmington Lies.”

Then it was segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and discrimination in employment, housing and all facets of life. It was lynchings, whippings and police beatings. 

It didn’t end with the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It goes on without end.

Now all Americans have been abruptly awakened to the reality of black America, where police officers are more feared than respected. We saw cellphone videos of police brutality against African-Americans. We saw George Floyd plead for his life while a policeman’s knee squeezed the breath out of him.

After the protests began, we saw police officers across the country turn on protesters and journalists with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. We saw a riot squad knock down a 75-year-old man in Buffalo and stalk by him as he bled on the pavement.

We saw police departments bristling with armored cars, riot gear and semiautomatic weapons. Is their motto “serve and protect” or “dominate the battlespace”?

Sometimes the police looked more like military units. In fact, military units were called out in the nation’s capital. So were agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security.

Also on the streets in Washington were officers from the Bureau of Prisons who wore riot gear but no badges or identification. They smacked of the Brownshirts in 1930s Germany.

Officers with no badges or insignia at D.C. protests

The menacing presence of these police units – and their conduct – brought white America face-to-face with what black America experiences.

Racism has deprived black Americans of the fundamental promise in our Constitution – that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the Founding Fathers also justified slavery. They counted slaves as three-fifths of whites. For generations, Americans used the Constitution to protect slavery and then to preserve discrimination and oppression.

It’s time to finally end that contradiction, keep the Constitution’s promise and rid America of the tyranny of racism.