It’s a common phenomenon for well-known politicians to become associated with, or remembered for, an inspiring or infamous utterance.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Ask not what your country can do for yourself. Ask what you can do for your country.”
“Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall.”
“I am not a crook.”
And this doesn’t apply just to presidents. In North Carolina, many people remember former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms for a number of provocative, mostly hateful statements.
Among current politicians, the list of memorable and influential turns of phrase is short and, one supposes, not aided by the constraints of modern social media. Interestingly, however, one prominent North Carolina politician whose 15-years-and-counting political career continues to be marked by a memorable and, as it has turned out, highly influential and prescient statement.
It’s been just shy of a decade now since the then-North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis addressed an audience in western North Carolina and said:
“What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.
We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition, that needs help, and we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government, and say, at some point, you’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.”
Tillis later tried to walk back the statement and publicly distance himself from its dark implications, but there is a growing body of evidence that its central “divide and conquer” premise has been enormously influential in guiding the modern political right.
Nowhere is this better evidenced now than in the debates over K-12 and higher education.
For at least the last 150 years, no other public institution in North Carolina has done more to advance the cause of broadly shared opportunity and prosperity for all than free, universal public education. Indeed, for all their many shortcomings — racial segregation and its legacy, frequently inadequate resources, the broken promise of truly free higher education – public schools and universities have remained our greatest hope. They are the places in which our children prepare for adulthood, learn to live with people who are different, and begin to grasp what it means to be a citizen.
What’s more, the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians still “get” this reality. Indeed, a recent statewide poll found that a significant bipartisan majority of North Carolinians — 69%– believe the state does not invest enough in public schools. This includes 62% of Republicans and a whopping 77% of all parents.
Unfortunately, for a narrow but well-funded and influential swath of the American right, this consensus is an anathema.
These are the forces that derogatorily refer to public education as “government schools,” who attack school integration as “social engineering,” who rail about the cost of free and reduced-priced school lunches, who dream of a day in which all students attend “voucher schools,” and who argue that public universities should be more exclusive, more expensive and designed, first and foremost, to produce workers.
And, owing to the generally unfavorable view that much of the public still holds toward these extreme beliefs, these are the forces who have once again turned to Tillis’s prescription of “divide and conquer” politics in hopes of recapturing the national political initiative in 2021.
This is the reason Americans are currently enduring a massive, multi-million-dollar national propaganda campaign to raise up and then tear down a supposed bogeyman called “critical race theory.”
This is why the right wing is trying so hard to make an example of the Nikole Hannah-Jones hire at the UNC journalism school.
This is why groups with names like the “Education First Alliance” are working hand-in-glove with Republican groups to win ever-more-outrageous statements and stances from public officials, recruit school board candidates, and hold parent “boot camps” in which attendees are told that white Americans are the target of a grand, racially discriminatory conspiracy.
When your ultimate goal is to dismantle a great and vitally important public institution of longstanding and unparalleled value and sustained popularity and, in effect, sell it off for parts, you have to find your openings where you can. And if that means using thinly veiled appeals to white supremacy to “divide and conquer” people who should be natural allies — like Americans of all races of low- and moderate-income for whom public education can and should be their shared path to personal and collective opportunity and prosperity — in order to get them to “look down” on each other — well, so be it.
Perhaps Sen. Tillis, who’s already lent a hand to the effort, can reprise his 2011 performance as part of the campaign.
Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator.