North Carolina leaders across the political spectrum can agree on one thing: We’re extremely divided, huddled into opposing camps and unwilling to compromise, or even hear each other out.
What they’re less sure of is why polarization seems to be getting worse, or what to do about it. A group of 60 North Carolina Influencers — comprised of leaders in the state’s political, business, academic and faith communities — was asked as part of an ongoing series about what they think is driving the fierce partisan divide in North Carolina and the nation.
They pointed to causes such as the “liberal media.” Or the “right-wing media.” Or social media. Or President Donald Trump, with his comments about Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and white supremacists. Or Democrats who focus on social issues such as LGBTQ rights.
There was a general sense of gloom among respondents that North Carolina and the U.S. are becoming more and more divided. Several themes resonated through answers from people on both sides of the political aisle: Civility in public debate is eroding, or already gone. People are stuck in echo chambers, hearing only ideas similar to their own, while social media spreads disinformation and rancor. Political parties have increasingly abandoned moderates and become more extreme, and fewer people are willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.
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A plurality of respondents — 42 percent — pointed to gerrymandering that’s created uncompetitive districts for many legislators as a prime cause of polarization.
“Neither party needs to compromise, and both tend to nominate more extreme candidates,” wrote former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican.
“Gerrymandering requires office holders to play to their base on every issue,” said former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat. “The districts need to change so that all leaders listen to all voters as they try to resolve important issues.”
But there was even political polarization evident in the responses about gerrymandering: Ten Democrats ranked gerrymandering as the biggest issue, along with seven unaffiliated Influencers and two whose party wasn’t known. That’s compared with just one Republican.
Republicans, on the other hand, were much more likely to rank “the media” or “social media” as the biggest drivers of polarization.
Over the past decade, North Carolina politics have been largely defined by a series of highly divisive issues, such as House Bill 2, a bill passed by the Republican-held legislature that required people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. That led to boycotts and protests, before a compromise repeal last year.
The long-running Moral Monday protests have also brought thousands of demonstrators to the state capitol in Raleigh, pushing for higher teacher pay, immigrant rights and criminal justice reform. Some of the protesters have staged sit-ins and been deliberately arrested in prominent Republican state legislators’ offices.
Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, said changing demographics are contributing to tensions in the state.
“Race is a major factor as our population is increasingly diverse and political power is slowly shifting to non-whites,” Morgan wrote.
Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures, said people aren’t willing to hear opposing viewpoints anymore.
“The biggest issue we have as a state and as a country is that we have stopped listening to each other,” Elias wrote. “We focus far more on what divides us than what unites us.”
Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl had a simple answer to the question of what’s driving partisan polarization among the populace: “Massive ignorance.”
When Republicans regained control of the state legislature in 2010, they were able to redraw districts following the U.S. Census. Since then, there have been seven lawsuits over redistricting, alleging partisan bias that created perpetually “safe” districts to ensure a majority in the state legislature and congressional delegation for Republicans, who trail registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters in the state.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and a leader of the redistricting process that led to the 2016 congressional districts, said at the time that the move could lead to an advantage for his party — a comment that’s helped fuel the legal challenge.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats,” he said.
A lawsuit over the redistricting process could still land before the U.S. Supreme Court before the 2020 elections, possibly forcing changes to districts before then. Many of the Influencers said North Carolina needs a non-partisan process to redraw districts so that the party in power doesn’t get the chance to change the map in their own favor.
“Districts should never be drawn to guarantee an end result,” wrote Patrick Woodie, the Raleigh-based CEO of the N.C. Rural Center.
Easley, also based in Raleigh, agreed — but said getting the party in power to surrender control would be a challenge.
“There should be a nonpartisan apparatus drawing districts. Both parties always try to stack the deck,” he said. “The problem is getting the partisans to give up control.”
By pushing candidates to satisfy their base and win primaries — rather than move to the middle to win a competitive general election — gerrymandering deprives voters of a true choice in many cases, some Influencers said.
“For the party in power, the officials choose their voters, rather than the converse,” said Frank Emory, a Charlotte attorney and chair of the Economic Development Partnership of N.C.
Trump and the media
The second-highest ranked factor driving polarization, according to the Influencers polled: President Trump, who drew the sharpest comments.
“It’s hard to talk about compromise or finding common ground or reaching across the aisle when the leader of the country has no regard for facts,” wrote Ashley Christensen, a Raleigh-area restaurateur and social activist.
“President Trump seems to be manipulating people’s fears,” said Bob Page, Greensboro-based CEO of Replacements Ltd. “We’ve got to overcome this divide by returning to a sense of working together to solve problems, as opposed to electing extreme politicians who divide us instead of inspire us.”
Many of the Influencers also said an echo chamber effect driven by partisan media consumption is amplifying tensions, with 20 percent citing “the media” or “social media” as the main driver of polarization.
“Social media makes it incredibly easy to express extreme views and also tends to reinforce negative views on just about every issue,” said Mark Vitner, Charlotte-based economist for Wells Fargo.
But perceptions of what the real problem is with media tended to be partisan as well, with some Republicans blaming left-wing media while Democrats blame right-leaning outlets.
“Mainly liberal media, including Observer, dwell on social issues to gain clicks and readership,” wrote former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. He said that “contributes to social divide when politicians real time working is spent on complex issues such as budget and healthcare which media often ignores and often does not have background to understand.”
“I believe specifically that Fox News is driving the polarization. They are creating hate and fear,” wrote Brooks Bell, Raleigh-based founder of a consulting firm.
Ultimately, almost all the respondents said they’re discouraged by the political atmosphere today.
“There seems to be an ‘in your face’ attitude affecting all political discourse these days, and the idea that we should discuss issues respectfully and rationally no longer applies,” wrote attorney Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and a Republican. “I’m not sure why this is happening, but it’s reflected in Trump’s tweets, the evening news, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, and perhaps it’s just where we are in society today — and I regret it!”
About this series
This is the fourth in a series of surveys The Charlotte Observer, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The (Durham) Herald-Sun will conduct with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. Look for the next report in two weeks.
Nancy Webb and Charlotte Observer staff writer Gavin Off contributed