Repeatedly in recent years and months, forces of political extremism have asserted themselves in North Carolina, representing a sharp break from our past. We are not only damaging our citizens but also putting at risk our hard-earned progress as a people.
Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted – to raise our voices against this darkness. It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won’t get there without a shove.
I was privileged to grow up in this state and can hardly emphasize how far we had once come toward a better day. When I was young, this state was dirt poor, the average North Carolinian made 71 cents on the dollar earned by others, our cities were small and insular, and the Ku Klux Klan was among strongest in the nation.
But then, slowly at first and then rapidly, North Carolina made an historic rise through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. In the 1950s, business leaders created the Research Triangle. In the 1960s, political leaders Terry Sanford bravely stood up for a New South, one that honored the rights of all while listening and respecting voices of disagreement. North Carolina won the respect of the nation.
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We haven’t reached our destination yet. These past few years have been especially tough on working people here. But we are still much better off than we once were.
The average North Carolinian now makes 85 cents for every dollar earned by others, our cities are centers of innovation, and, best of all, we are learning to live together as one people. That’s why so many native North Carolinians are proud of our roots and others have been proud to bring their families and businesses.
Or at least, that’s where many of us thought we were until just a few years ago. Then suddenly, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state gave way to a new, mean-spirited, extremist politics.
The signals coming out of the state capital have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people living on the margins. I am sure many of our state legislators meant well but what other message did they intend when they:
▪ embraced a constitutional amendment to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians;
▪ placed more restrictions on abortion;
▪ enacted a flatter tax with heavier burdens on the poor and lightening burdens for the wealthy;
▪ rejected federal funding for Medicaid and unemployment benefits;
▪ and cut funds for public schools as well as state universities.
This is not the North Carolina that we all loved.
Now, incredibly, we have wandered into a needless fight over the bathroom rights of transgender people. The sudden rush by the state legislature to pass a law imposing a one-size-fits-all solution – and worse yet, a solution that seems to punish transgender people – has made North Carolina the poster child of backward-looking leadership.
A friend suggested that if the real danger is of a man assaulting a young girl in a public bathroom, the state should toughen up penalties against such assaults. Then the legislature should do the right thing: Repeal HB2!
I am sure many will disagree. I am equally sure that some of those disagreements have merit.
But let me emphasize that at heart, our differences are not Democrat vs. Republican nor liberal vs. conservative. The real differences here are between moderates vs. extremists, between those who want a better life for all citizens vs. those who want to go back.
But dare not go back here in this state. No. We need to “take North Carolina back.”
Gergen, a former presidential adviser, adapted this for the Observer from a commencement address he delivered at Elon University on Saturday.