Opinion: Daily Journal

Are We There Yet?

I know you’ve been there. It’s time for supper and you have neither the time nor the supplies to cook. So you and your family members or friends all pile in to the car to head out to a restaurant.

Then the arguments start. They come in two varieties: where arguments and how arguments. The former are almost always more contentious and harder to settle than the latter.

If you want to eat at your favorite Italian place, your son wants to eat at his favorite Mexican place, and your daughter wants to eat at her favorite Chinese place, the stakes are high. Only one of you can get what you really want. On the other hand, if you all agree to visit the Indian buffet — and you really should, by the way — but disagree about how best to get there through the traffic, you may still have a spirited argument. In the end, however, you all get to eat what you want, plus one of you wins vindication for being the best highway navigator and the other two aren’t all that put out by being wrong.

Why am I dwelling on the nature of dinner-destination arguments? Because they remind me a great deal of the current political debate in North Carolina.

Over the past four years, Republicans have won control of the General Assembly, the governor’s office, and a majority of the state’s county governments. Out of power in North Carolina for the first time in more than a century, Democrats aren’t just disappointed or dismayed by these developments. Many are terrified, livid, or both.

Even in the best of circumstances, such a change in political fortunes would generate tension, dissension, and heated argument. Republicans are still learning how to craft and implement policy. Democrats are still learning how to amend or effectively criticize policies they can no longer block from passage.

Nevertheless, these factors can’t full explain what’s going on in Raleigh right now. It doesn’t explain why some left-wing protestors feel entitled or even obligated to occupy offices and disrupt the proceedings of the General Assembly. It doesn’t explain why opinion writers at the Raleigh News & Observer and other media outlets seem oddly fixated on advancing conspiracy theories rather than engaging the real issues of the day.

I think the problem is that most Republicans and conservatives think they are engaged in how arguments while many Democrats and liberals think they are engaged in where arguments.

On the Right, most assume that although North Carolinians may disagree about means, all have a shared end of making their state a better place. Conservatives believe that during the past two decades in particular, state government had gotten off track — that increases in its fiscal and regulatory costs had not been accompanied by commensurate increases in the quality and desirability of services provided. They believe that cutting and reforming taxes, applying cost-benefit tests to regulations, and introducing greater choice and competition in the delivery of public services would achieve better results.

That doesn’t mean the Republicans seek to destroy the government. They assume that district-run public schools and state-run colleges and universities will continue to be the primary means of public education. They assume that North Carolina will continue to provide a health care safety net — although they’d like to see a fundamental rewrite of Obamacare and a clearer division of labor between something like Medicaid (limited to the truly poor) and a truly competitive market of private health plans and medical services (with equalized tax treatment and means-tested subsidies). They also assume the state will continue its other traditional roles of enforcing the law, protecting public health and safety, and financing infrastructure, although they have different ideas about how best to fulfill those roles, too.

To many Democrats, however, these ideas don’t sound like different routes to a shared destination of improving North Carolina. They believe that Republicans want to take them somewhere else entirely — a dystopia conjured out of some liberal college professor’s worst nightmare.

That’s not where North Carolina’s headed. I suppose they’ll just have to see when we get there.

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Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.