How we got here on our next Community Connections

What: Community Connections forum
Where: Elon University’s Moseley Center
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21
Topic: The future role of government and the two-party system
Bottom line: Community Connections is panel discussion series co-sponsored by Elon University and the Burlington Times News. The audience is encouraged to participate by asking questions of the panelists.
To go or not to go, that is the question: Be there, aloha.

Contentious elections for state and national offices in 2016 left a trail of questions about the future of our nation. Beyond debates about values, the economy, race, the judiciary and the role of the United States in the world today voters also fixated on matters of honesty, vulgarity, intelligence and credibility. Two weak candidates for the highest office in the land were at the center of it all. One unlikely and inconceivable winner emerged from the Electoral College, redefining – or rather raising the volume – on what many Americans seem to want – something, anything different. I’m not sure anyone has a clear answer to what that might be but two things seem certain moving forward: Discussion is needed about what government should be in our lives and nation; and, do the two major political parties even matter anymore?

Lost and Confused SignpostNow, a month after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president, a person of questionable character, multiple business failures, a fixation on publicity and self-promotion along with a troubling lack of interest to the truth and wholly untethered from reality — the nation seems on the precipice of political catastrophe at worst and mass dysfunction at best. Trump’s vocal critics, largely Democrats and traditional Republicans are waging a highly visible, often accurate and sometimes unhinged “resistance” on social and other media – organizations very happy to oblige. After all, Trump is the kind of media target who invites negative press – even welcomes it. In many ways it’s what he wants. Demonizing the press as a political enemy helped whip his base to the polls. Among Trump’s core voters, many have long held skeptical beliefs about the media and government – and place special emphasis on the government.

It’s a one-two punch that certainly helps explain where we are today – that and a partisan divide highlighted by neither party taking much responsibility for what’s right or wrong in the nation – only winning. Both share responsibility for what is occurring. Neither own up to it. Sad! — to use a new cliche.

I was in the middle of this particular American horror story for at least 20 years. Demonizing the press is nothing new. Politicians have done so for decades – a particularly successful strategy for populists such as the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The same largely conservative politicians also raged against government, which often drew applause from the same media for which they had such public contempt.

I refereed this dynamic in reporting and editing for years. The last 10 I did so as an editorial page editor for a newspaper in the mid-sized Southern community of Burlington, North Carolina. For a long time I worked for a company owned by a Libertarian family and as a result many of our editorials were stridently anti-government. Letters to the editor ran strongly in that vein, too. Government became in some ways a common enemy.

But as a third-party observer I also noted that there was and is a multiple personalities disorder quality to this incessant criticism of government. Conservatives and libertarians don’t own the anti-government idea – they’re just louder about it because their cause is driven more often by lower taxes. Never underestimate the power of the pocketbook. Many progressives / liberals also take the idea of big government to task, largely driven by cultural or freedom issues. And, of course, both sides have their sacred cows.

I used to talk to an older guy in the Alamance County community on a fairly regular basis. He’s an anti-tax, anti-spending conservative – to a point. He harped on the issue of public transportation in the city of Burlington, for example. He thought it was a “big-spending, pie-in-the-sky boondoggle” and wrote as much in email screeds in which he often misspelled bus as buss. Sigh.

And in the main – buss aside — he might have a point. Can a bus system sustain itself in Burlington? It’s a good question and one worthy of discussion. But he also failed to even consider whether a lack of public transportation kept low income people unemployed and its impact on the community at large.

Then this person sank his own credibility by saying, “they shouldn’t be wasting money on this boondoggle when we have to look after our senior citizens.” He would then go on to emphasize the need for more government attention and services in that area.

Same guy also thought any spending on schools to be a complete waste of money, by the way — as if children don’t need to be educated. He figured a school constructed 70 years ago where he was a student nearly 60 years ago, should still be good enough for kids today. Computers? Who needs ‘em? Modernization? What a warped idea.

Another example, leaders of the N.C. Legislature have over the past several years moved strongly down a conservative path, often drawing criticism from progressives. Many of their tax measures, though, have restored revenue to the state coffers and encouraged businesses to locate in North Carolina. Some of this had to do with an economy that has only slightly improved but new policies have worked, too. Now, with more money in hand, let’s see what they do with it.

That’s to the positive.

On the negative slope, the same group authored a disastrous overreaction to an overreach by Charlotte’s City Council, which turned into HB2 – state-sanctioned discrimination which has damaged the state’s reputation and harmed the business climate they were trying to restore. State lawmakers also engaged in fear-mongering for no reason other than to offer a tepid response to widespread criticism of the so-called “bathroom law,” a law, by the way, they had no way or mechanism to enforce because it’s a problem that exists in an imaginary world. There is no intent to enforce it. It’s a cosmetic law that turned into horror movie makeup.

There were lots of reasons for the legislature to stay away from this law. But one hardly talked about is this: The state has no business telling Charlotte’s municipal government how it should operate. Government works best when it’s most local where voters have an actual say in the outcome. If Charlotte citizens didn’t like the law they could address it with their council or make changes using the ballot box.

In short, the state had no reason to be involved at all and should repeal it.

Others might disagree about state involvement in local issues and see nothing wrong with a more authoritarian, centralized government. Weird, I know, but true.

I hope these and other issues related to government and partisan party relevance come up on Tuesday at our second Community Connections forum of the 2016-17 school year. In the interest of full disclosure, I helped choose the panel in my role as recently departed newspaper editor. I think we have a great group for this discussion.

They are:

Chris Fitzsimon, director of the progressive N.C. Policy Watch, an organization that monitors and writes about government, education and politics on all levels, but largely focusing on the state, its actions and leadership. Fitzsimon is a columnist  published in the Times-News and newspapers across the state. This will be his first Community Connections appearance.

John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh that also produces the Carolina Journal.  He continues to produce a column for the John Locke Foundation that is published in regularly in the Times-News and other N.C. newspapers. He will be participating in his second Community Connections forum.

Carrie Eaves is an assistant professor of political science at Elon University. She has a B.A. degree in political science from Furman University, a masters in public administration from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in political science from the University of George. She came to Elon in 2013 and helped plan one season of Community Connections forums. Her areas of research include America’s political institutions.

Naeemah Clark, associate professor of Communications at Elon, will reprise her role as moderator.

The public is invited and admission is free.

When I look back, this is probably a long overdue discussion and one we should be having as a nation as we try to find our way forward in what has become a confusing jungle of shouting and ideas. How do we want our governments to be as we move forward is a fairly huge concern.

Hope to see lots of people on Tuesday.

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