Gary is taking a break from blogging. Our guest blogger today is Nation Hahn.
In recent weeks North Carolinians have heard two inaugural addresses. One, from Governor Pat McCrory spoke to “Unlimited Opportunity.” The other, from President Barack Obama, was a call for the “country’s reasonable majority” to act.
For North Carolina Democrats, the President’s address was inspirational. The truth is that it also could also offer a rebuttal to Governor McCrory’s agenda to come.
The most memorable portion of McCrory’s speech came toward the middle as he hammered home his version of “Main Street.”
“As I look out toward Main Street with government at our back, I see unlimited opportunity. Government should not be a barricade or an obstacle to progress. Our face and our approach should be outward, not inward.”
In McCrory’s world, and the world of his most prominent supporters, government is a barrier for progress. As President Clinton said at the convention last August, their prescription remains the same — cut taxes, cut regulations and call me in the morning.
“We know this philosophy works because we’ve done it before… My parent’s and your parent’s North Carolina was a state filled with unlimited opportunity– opportunity not only for them, but for their kids to get a good education, get a job and fulfill their potential… It is time for us to make sure that North Carolina fulfills and even exceeds that potential once more.”
Conservative narratives often harken back to the past. They tie themselves to the traditions of the 1950’s — family, apple pie and drive-in movies. It has long been a successful strategy. My friend Jonah Sachs wrote “The Story Wars” explaining the power of partnering your present messaging with the stories that define our history.
The President’s inaugural address would also tie his narrative to history, however. President Obama warmed progressive hearts and minds with his own story.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
“For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
Jon Haidt, Jonah Sachs and others have correctly pointed out that the Democratic Party abdicating narratives tied to our history and our founding fathers has been one of our most glaring mistakes in recent decades.
President Obama connected the threads between the battle for equality and progress to the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the right to vote has been constantly advanced — with a subtle notation that today people still must wait in line in some areas and voting rights are under attack in others. He noted that immigrants still see this as a
land of opportunity.
Earlier in the address he said, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
On the issue of climate change he declared, “That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
His address was powerful because of his nod to our common history. Owning the story of progress, reminding people of our constant struggle to become a more perfect nation and stating that we must secure our “self-evident truths” and our “God given freedom” through our work.
North Carolina Democrats must not only be inspired by the President’s address, we must heed the lessons of storytelling that he showed on that bitterly cold January day.
We must own our history. We must tie our work to the work of those who came before us. We kept our schools open during the Great Depression and we founded the community college system. Terry Sanford stood up to the segregationists and invested in the war on poverty. Jim Hunt saw the roads being paved in rural NC and understood that government investment could be a force for good.
To be clear, we should not rely on tired ideas and narratives. Too often we have found ourselves defending the status quo rather than offering a new vision, but we must not abdicate the story of our state either.
It was the public investment in education that drove growth in our state.
It was our dedication to environmental protections, not “regulation”, which preserved our natural beauty and led to our status as one of the top states for tourism.
It was the view of our state as a beacon of progress to the rest of the South that led to people moving here and great companies not only being founded but sticking around.
We need ideas, yes, but we also must tell the story of what made this state great. It was the people of North Carolina who did so, as McCrory would note, but it was the people working together to build progress. It was people believing in something bigger than themselves. It was people who understood that investing in education, good roads, environmental protections and fighting inequality did not mean a burden.
If McCrory’s vision was correct then Mississippi and South Carolina would be beacons of economic success. The truth is that his narrative is wrong, but it is up to all of us to respond with a narrative that reminds people of where we have been while inspiring them to move forward towards a brighter future if we hope to emerge victorious in the years ahead.