While the United Kingdom is an ocean away, the British referendum on European Union membership can serve as an important lens through which to analyze the current state of politics in North Carolina. In both cases, politicians have focused on social issues, thereby creating deep divides between the young and the old and the urban and the rural.
All sectors of society haven’t shared equally in economic gains over the past few years. While the cities have largely bounced back since the Great Recession, many rural areas have yet to recover. Steel workers in Wales and those who worked in cotton mills in Kannapolis or furniture factories in Hickory aren’t all that different. They deeply distrust political elites and fear further decline of their communities as young people flee economic uncertainty for opportunity in the cities. Rather than seeking to bridge the gaps between young urbanites and the older rural generation, politicians have campaigned on social issues. Regardless of whether they do so because of sincerely held values or for political gain, this tactic has resulted in even deeper divisions at the ballot box.
Voters aged 18 to 24 voted overwhelmingly in favor of continued E.U. membership. While only a fourth of young voters voted to leave, the vast majority of voters older than 50 voted for Brexit. This divide is strikingly similar to the age gap in North Carolina over issues related to House Bill 2. According to a May 2016 poll, only 25 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in North Carolina support HB2. Support for the bill is higher in every other age group.
The cities of London, Edinburgh, and Belfast all voted to remain in the European Union. Their suburbs and rural counties preferred instead the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the leave campaign. North Carolina’s referendum on Amendment One showed the same pattern. Support for the anti-gay marriage amendment was greatest in rural areas, with bigger cities voting against the now-unconstitutional amendment.
Yet while politicians have drawn attention to issues related to immigration and LGBT rights, they’ve done so at the expense of economies and cherished institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Brexit vote will cause British universities to lose $1 Billion in E.U.-sponsored research funding. While the fallout from HB2 is still unclear due to a series of court cases, the bill puts into jeopardy five times that amount in federal education funding for North Carolina. Because of Brexit, businesses that rely on the European market plan to leave London. Closer to home, PayPal and Red Ventures have declined to expand in North Carolina as a result of HB2.
Given the extraordinary cost of Brexit and anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina, why do some political leaders continue to fight the culture wars? Many rely on a base of predominantly white voters in suburban enclaves in and around cities who worry about the growing power of left-leaning urbanites. While some truly believe in culturally conservative causes, others campaign on social issues to ensure turnout among their most impassioned constituents. By choosing to impose limits on the rights of underrepresented minorities, they win elections but fail to facilitate economic growth.
British voters won’t get the opportunity to weigh in on Brexit again, but North Carolinians will get the chance to reaffirm or reject their elected leadership in November. While Britain embraced its divisions, North Carolina still has time to heal its own. Candidates for office in the Tar Heel State should seek to unify the urban and rural, bridge the gap between the young and the old, and put the economic health of North Carolina above the electoral health of either party.
Marsicano is a Charlotte native and Ph.D. candidate in Leadership and Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University.