There is a bit of mythology percolating through the news media these days that the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement led by Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP is somehow acting as stalking horse for the state Democratic Party and Democratic politicians. A recent news story even ran in several North Carolina news outlets under the headline “NC’s protests are Democratic tool in election year.”
The story was a mile off-base.
While it’s obviously true, as a general matter, that modern Democratic politicians tend to have more in common with the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement and that some Democratic politicians have endorsed it (or some of it), the notion that Barber or most members of his movement give two hoots about which party implements the agenda they have been advancing is absurdly simplistic and bespeaks a remarkably shallow grasp of both recent and more distant history.
Barber himself made this truth plain in a recent speech in which he quoted multiple 19th Century “Lincoln Republicans” as well as Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and even Ronald Reagan in a speech that emphasized the expressly nonpartisan goals of the movement.
Moreover, while it’s true that the late 19th Century Fusion Movement of freed African-Americans and progressive whites that Barber often holds up as a model included many Republicans and battled many racist Democrats, the inaccuracy and fluidity of partisan labels is also readily evident in more recent times.
As the speakers at a recent Moral Mondays protest made clear, North Carolina and its people would be dramatically better off if legislative leaders and Governor McCrory heeded Barber’s call to “repent, repeal and restore.” Mere reversal of last year’s terrible laundry list of regressive legislation and a return to the status quo ante would improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians in myriad ways.
That said, the notion that the North Carolina of 2012 (or 2010) — i.e. the state that was run by Democrats for so long — was some kind of progressive paradise is ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is that many of the advances won by progressives in the years prior to the rise of the current conservative leadership were, quite frequently, half measures that Democratic leaders had to be dragged kicking and screaming to enact.
Whether it was the enactment of the Racial Justice Act, publicly-financed elections, the Earned Income Tax Credit or any number of other important progressive (or semi-progressive) policies, North Carolina Democratic political leaders were never a uniformly forward-looking group. Indeed, there was many a time in which conservative, pro-corporate Democrats allied themselves with conservative Republicans to aggressively resist progressive change. Even today, there is more than one Democratic legislator who has gone along with some or all of the current hard-right legislative agenda.
Indeed, the protest movement launched by Rev. Barber and his allies under the “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” banner first commenced in earnest in 2007 — a time in which Democrats controlled almost all of the important levers of state government. And while the movement may be getting more publicity today, its ultimate objectives haven’t changed.
And so it is that conservative politicians of all political parties have reason to be concerned about the rapid rise of the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement. As even a cursory glance makes plain, there’s only one mass political movement in North Carolina today that actually resembles the fast-changing and ever-more-diverse population of the state as a whole.
In other words, the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement is no tool of the Democratic Party. And while the last few years have represented a walk in the wilderness for progressives, there can be little doubt that the recent hard times will ultimately leave them stronger and better-positioned to help chart a new course for North Carolina in the not-so-distant future. Both Republicans and Democrats will resist this effort at their own political risk.
Rob Schofield is the director of research at N.C. Policy Watch.