Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is often credited with saying, “The government closest to the people serves them best.” Republicans in North Carolina — and elsewhere — think they know better.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, “the government closest to the people” approved Ordinance 7056, prohibiting discrimination against LGBT citizens in public accommodations and allowing transgender people to use public restrooms appropriate to their gender identity. One year prior, the ordinance failed in a 6 – 5 vote. This year is passed in a 7 – 4 vote. Two new city council members at large, elected in November, supported the ordinance.
It sounds like local democracy in action. Advocates for the ordinance kept working to persuade voters and candidates to support it, and managed to elect two more city council members who voted for it. Like over 180 cities and counties, “the government closest to the people” of Charlotte decided they were best served by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Conservatives have long been fond of the Thomas Jefferson quote above. They usually invoke it in defense of “states’ rights,” and the rights of local governments to decide what’s best for their citizens and communities.
● Ronald Reagan paraphrased it in his April 1, 1967 speech to the California Republican Assembly. “That government is best which remains closest to the people,” he said, “but almost daily the Goliath that is the Federal government moves to gather more power unto itself and to minimize the functions of both the Congress and the states.”
● Former president Richard Nixon said, “Local government is the government closest to the people, it is most responsive to the individual person.”
● On its website, the Oklahoma Republican Party says it believes, “That government closest to the people governs best and is preferred to centralized control.”
● In a post on Brietbart, former Texas governor Rick Perry wrote that, “liberty is maximized by a limited government set closest to the people.”
● A number of chapters of the College Republicans feature on their websites a “Republican Oath,” which states, “I believe … that the most effective government is government closest to the people.”
● House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) told reporters, “You have to understand – we’re the body of government closest to the people. We’re up every other year and there’s just a lot of anxiety that’s out there.”
It’s the essence of “small government conservatism.” “Decentralization” of power and functions from the federal government to state and local governments has been a cornerstone of Republican party principles since Eisenhower.
Lately, though, that bedrock conservative principle has proved somewhat mushy when local governments embrace progressive values. Then, conservatives are only all about local control until they’re not.
● Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), conservative champion of local control and “states’ rights,” sought to overturn the District of Columbia’s ordinance banning employers from retaliating against workers who use birth control or have had abortions.
● After Washington, D.C. residents voted to legalize use of marijuana in 2014, House Republicans used an appropriations rider to prohibit D.C. from implementing the law.
● Republican legislators in Alabama passed a law preventing municipalities from increasing the minimum wage. Nineteen states now have similar laws, half of which were enacted within the last five years.
● After citizens in Denton, Texas voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking within their city limits, Republican lawmakers passed, and Republican Governor Greg Abbot signed, a law prohibiting cities from banning fracking. Laws like this one, and Alabama’s pre-emptive minimum wage law, are based on model legislation supplied by the Koch-back American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
● Republican lawmakers in Arizona introduced more than a dozen bills designed to strip cities of the authority to regulate anything by declaring everything — from dog breeders to plastic grocery bags — “a matter of statewide concern” that only the state government can regulate.
It’s getting to be a thing. Republican-dominated state governments and a Republican-dominated Congress fail or refuse to act on a number of issues people are concerned about. So, “the government closest to the people,” hears the people and gives them what they want. Then, Republican-dominated legislatures and Republican governors take it away.
The pattern was repeated in North Carolina. With Charlotte’s ordinance set to go into effect on April 1, governor Pat McCrory called a special session of the Assembly. Within twelve hours, Republican legislators introduce, debated and passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, also known as HB2. Within 12 hours of its introduction, McCrory signed HB2 into law.
HB2 proponents took their cue from the fight over Houston’s equal rights ordinance, and whipped up fears about sexual predators masquerading as transgender to gain access to women’s restrooms. But none of the 17 states and more than 200 cities with ordinances protecting transgender people have reported an increase in heterosexual men dressing like women to gain access to the women’s restroom. Police and school officials in these places haven’t seen it. Besides, sexual assault is already a crime, regardless of the alleged perpetrator’s reason for entering a women’s space. The gender identity of the perpetrator has no bearing on the crime committed. McCrory himself was forced to admit during an interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace that he was unaware of any such incidents, despite his defense of HB2.
Besides, HB2 is not just about bathrooms. It also prevents city and county governments from increasing minimum wage standards for private employers, and limits workers’ ability to sue for discrimination in state court. (McCrory has since tried to tweak the law to restore workers’ ability to sue over employment discrimination.)
Laws like HB2 are “solutions” in search of problems in more ways than one. Across the South, right-wing state legislatures are increasingly overruling progressive cities. The problem conservative state legislators face is that Southern cities are booming, and becoming more progressive. All but six of the 20 fastest growing metro areas in the country from 2010 to 2015 were in the South. Increased growth and diversity has turned these cities into laboratories for advancing progressive policies that are popular with local voters.
Conservatives state lawmakers have an even bigger problem. These cities are in step with the rest of the country. A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that 57 percent of Americans oppose laws like HB2, and 75 percent support laws guaranteeing equal protections for transgender people. The shift in public opinion indicates why so many corporations have spoken out against the North Carolina law. Thanks to business boycotts, and potential loss of federal money, HB2 could cost the state $5 billion per year.
North Carolina Republicans now fear HB2 could cost them the election. According to Public Policy Polling, just 36 percent of North Carolina voters support HB2, while 45 percent opposed it. Fifty-four percent think it has had a negative impact on the state’s economy, and 53 percent think it’s had a negative impact on the state’s image. Only 32 percent of voters think HB2 is helping North Carolina, compared to 53 percent who say it’s hurting the state.
McCrory is now trailing Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in the polls. (Cooper has refused to defend HB2 against legal challenges.) Just 40 percent of voters approve of the job McCrory is doing, and 49 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Republicans in the legislature, and 52 percent view them negatively. Republicans in North Carolina may pay a big price for abandoning their “small government” principles.