Opinion: Daily Journal

Political Lessons in Humility

RALEIGH – It is in the nature of many politicians to dwell in a world of their own imagination – in a world where politics and politicians are the center of attention.

I think this isn’t just a matter of self-selection, of folks who consider themselves to be indispensable problem-solvers opting to go into politics or government service in the first place. I also think that the electoral and legislative processes encourage and reinforce a kind of narcissism in the minds of politicians, to whom great and constant attention is paid by the news media, lobbyists, business leaders, campaign donors, and others.

Here are a couple of reasons for North Carolina politicians to resist such impulses and adopt a more humble approach to their jobs. Both come from recent survey research.

The liberal firm Public Policy Polling recently surveyed 865 North Carolina voters and asked them to offer favorable or unfavorable opinions about 14 personalities, including sports veterans, media stars, and political figures.

Rev. Billy Graham topped the list with a 69 percent favorable rating and 14 percent unfavorable. UNC-Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith, actor Andy Griffith, basketball star Michael Jordan, and NASCAR legend Richard Petty were next in line. All had favorables above 50 percent

(See why Democratic politicians often try to link themselves to Smith and Griffith, Republicans to Petty, and everyone to Graham?)

The only elected politician on the list, former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, drew ratings of 38 percent favorable, 23 percent unfavorable. Guess who had similar favorability and lower unfavorables? American Idol winner Scotty McCreery at 37-8. Such is the nature of political fame in a state with plenty of in-migration and short memories – you may wake up one morning and find it gone like a hurricane.

Another argument for political humility comes from the latest statewide survey commissioned by the conservative Civitas Institute. Among other things, it asked 600 likely North Carolina voters a series of favorability questions about state and national politics. Once they got past Gov. Bev Perdue and President Barack Obama, however, the feedback turned tepid.

Nearly half of respondents – of likely voters, I should stress – said they had never even heard of Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has served in the office since 2000 and before that in the General Assembly. Slightly more than half of the respondents said the same thing about Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, also a former legislator, as well as Republicans Steve Troxler, the Agriculture Commission, and Cherie Berry, the Labor Commissioner.

As for State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, 61 percent said they’d never heard of her. And nearly three-quarters of likely North Carolina voters have never heard of State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, or State Auditor Beth Wood.

If you live and breathe North Carolina politics, such results may seem puzzling or even infuriating. How could the North Carolina electorate show no stronger level of support for Jim Hunt, a significant political figure since the 1970s, than they do for Scotty McCreery, who began this year as a high school student and grocery bagger in Garner? How could the North Carolina electorate have no strong opinion about, or even knowledge of, the politicians who run major state agencies, oversee the state’s pension fund, or preside over the state senate?

Well, the short answer to these questions is that if you live and breathe North Carolina politics, you are a weirdo. If it’s any comfort, I’m clearly a weirdo, too.

But I also think that Scotty McCreery deserves a higher favorability rating than that of most politicians.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.