In Raleigh, the conservatives are confidently progressive and the progressives are desperately conservative.
The modern-day conservatives who inhabit the General Assembly, the executive branch, and policy organizations outside government believe that the state’s best days still lay ahead. But they recognize that North Carolina’s traditional approaches to fiscal, regulatory, infrastructure, and education policy have to change before progress is possible.
They know that North Carolina’s economy hasn’t just been suffering since 2007. They know that according to standard economic measures such as GDP growth per capita, the Tar Heel State has been lagging behind the rest of the South and nation for decades. While respecting the intentions and accomplishments of past generations of North Carolina leaders, today’s conservatives embrace the need for a fundamental change of direction.
That’s why conservatives favor a major rewrite of the state’s complicated, anti-competitive tax code. That’s why they favor regulatory reform that limits unnecessary burdens, clarifies ambiguous rules, and accelerates the permitting of new job-creating businesses. That’s why they favor structural reforms of the state’s ineffective economic-development programs, the state’s outdated system for allocating transportation dollars, and the state’s high-cost, low-return Medicaid program. That’s why they favor education reforms that set higher standards, reward high performance, and expand choice and competition.
These agenda items are not prejudices, political talking points, or passing whims. They are sound policy alternatives grounded in sound theory, empirical data, and the practical experience of other states and nations that have enjoyed greater progress and economic success in recent years. While venerating the state’s rich and instructive history, North Carolina conservatives are open to new ideas and are willing to look far beyond the state’s borders to find them.
In contrast, the “progressives” who inhabit Raleigh’s legislative minority and liberal institutions tend to dwell in the past. They venerate public policies enacted decades ago, when times were very different, and seem unwilling to reconsider them in light of major changes in public policy in America and beyond. Two key traits are inflexibility and insularity. When confronted with a persistent problem, such as slow growth in rural counties, they defend the very policies and institutions that have supposedly been addressing the problem for years. And when presented with new ideas for reform and growth from other states and nations, they insist that North Carolina — lackluster economy and all — still deserves to be a teacher, not a student.
The image that comes to mind is the 40-year-old guy who lives around the corner with his parents, never quite lived up to his potential, and spends his Saturday nights at the bar regaling his increasingly bored audience with tales of his prowess at high-school football. You might have a soft spot for this fellow. But you are unlikely to lend much credence to his ruminations about the world.
Before you leap to your keypad and begin typing, I am well aware of the fact that not everyone in North Carolina politics fits neatly into the conservative/progressive inversion I’ve been describing. There are some cranky conservatives who have let personal rivalries, pet peeves, media stunts, or other distractions pull their focus away from promoting progress through fundamental reform of the state’s taxes, regulation, infrastructure, and education system. And there are some open-minded liberals who have recognized that the Democratic Party’s old formula for electoral success is no longer relevant to North Carolina’s economic and policy challenges, and have begun the hard work of developing a new formula for a new era.
In general, however, I think my inversion accurately conveys the political moment. Conservatives are confident about the future benefits of such ideas as lower marginal tax rates, energy exploration, greater accountability and competition in education, competitive contracting for Medicaid and other services, and redirecting transportation dollars to congestion relief and economic growth. They are also confident that most North Carolina voters agree with them about economic-growth policy, the death penalty, and voter ID, for example, and welcome the opportunity to ask them in 2014.
Progressives, on the other hand, are pessimistic, despondent, and often angry. I won’t deny that anger can be politically powerful. But it has to be married to something other than reflexive defense of the status quo.