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OPINION: Divide and Conquer Politics in Action: House budget proposal makes clear it’s still the N.C. GOP’s ‘go to’ governing strategy

It’s been more than a decade since then-North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis uttered his infamous, but accurate description of the strategy that he and his fellow Republicans would need in order to remain ascendant in state politics.

In 2011 Tillis told an audience of supporters in western North Carolina that the key to GOP victories was to “divide and conquer” their potential adversaries by convincing a large subset of that group to “look down” on people of low income who might find themselves reliant upon public assistance. Or, as Tillis put it offensively, “these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government.”

Tillis later expressed some regret for the statement, and one hopes that he still feels that way. But when it comes to the senator’s comrades on the political right, there’s been no such backtracking. Indeed, as Donald Trump and others have demonstrated time and again, “divide and conquer” has become the “go to” strategy of modern American conservatives as they’ve worked to construct and sustain governing majorities in states like North Carolina, where their policy agenda — tax cuts for the rich, low wages for working people, limits on reproductive freedom, no limits on guns — remains broadly and consistently unpopular.

Nowhere is this deeply cynical tactic better epitomized in 2023 than in the GOP effort to convince white voters that there exists some kind of diabolical conspiracy among public school educators to heap demoralizing, inferiority-provoking guilt upon their children.

Republican lawmakers have been egged on by Fox News provocateurs and others of their ilk to believe (or, at least, to say) that teachers  — most of them white  —are somehow (and for some reason) intentionally inundating white kids with constant reminders of the racist sins of their forebears as part of a monstrous “wokeness” conspiracy. In response, these lawmakers have been advancing bill after bill to crack down on “Critical Race Theory” and other components of the supposed scheme.

The result: At a time when the state’s tax code grows more regressive by the year, income and wealth gaps continue to soar, many schools are crumbling, the environment is in crisis, and our children are being mowed down by gunfire at a ghastly rate, the top agenda item for the state’s most powerful political leaders is to micromanage the state’s U.S. K-12 history curricula.

One of the great tragedies here — aside from all the lost opportunities to enact public policies that would actually improve the lives of average North Carolinians — is that there are many important lessons about race in American history that unintimidated teachers could and should impart to students.

As N.C. State professor emeritus Michael Schwalbe — a social scientist who taught students about the roles of race and the legacy of white supremacy for decades – explained in a powerful essay for NC Newsline last week, when this subject is approached in a thoughtful and truthful way, there are enormous and powerful insights that can be conveyed and absorbed by students.


Sadly, those are precisely the kinds of insights that leaders on the right would prefer to keep safely under wraps, lest working- and middle-class white voters recognize how much more they have in common with average people of color than they do with the Donald Trumps, Ron DeSantises and Marjorie Taylor-Greenes of the world.

And so it is that even as North Carolina Republican legislative leaders have finally and grudgingly conceded that Medicaid expansion is both a policy and political winner that will save thousands of lives while greatly adding to the state’s wealth and well-being, they simply can’t resist the temptation to sully this small but important spit of mutually beneficial common ground.

This is why they’ve made enactment of the expansion legislation contingent on final passage of a state budget. And it’s why the state House version of said budget that was written behind closed doors and made public last week, contains all manner of controversial law changes totally unrelated to funding government – many of them from the far right’s political and culture war agendas.

As NC Newsline’s Lynn Bonner reported, this means that, in order for our state to enact a popular, bipartisan and lifesaving bill to extend healthcare access to half-million-plus people, we’ll also have to swallow new laws to micromanage and privatize our public schools, embrace crazy election law conspiracy theories, and change state retirement laws to benefit a Republican Supreme Court justice.

In other words, divide and conquer. Force well-meaning Medicaid champions who’ve been fighting for expansion since Thom Tillis first broached his strategy, to “look down” on other progressive advocates who might urge a gubernatorial veto of the budget in order to block attacks on our schools, elections and the judiciary.

The bottom line: The state budget should be about funding government, not leveraging a political agenda favored by a small and extreme minority. All North Carolinians should be angered by this deeply cynical, if maddeningly familiar, maneuver.

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast. Republished from ncnewsline.com.

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