A new film adaptation of the landmark 19th-century Russian novel Anna Karenina due out this fall will introduce a new generation to Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
What is true of family also tends to be true of politics. While there is stiff competition for the title of least happy state this year, the stresses of North Carolina’s unique dysfunction are showing even as the state prepares to host the Democratic National Convention in September.
Gov. Bev Perdue and at least 30 state lawmakers have decided not to run this fall, many of them citing the loss of civility and willingness to compromise when it comes to doing the public’s business. They point to the effects of redistricting, the results of the 2010 elections in which Republicans took control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century, and the turnover of a third of the members of the Senate and a quarter of the House. The spillover effects of caustic partisanship in national politics coupled with the displacement of serious journalism by the echo chambers of talk radio and the blogosphere have only encouraged more bad behavior.
“In the current environment, there’s no trust and no collaboration,” laments House Minority Leader Joe Hackney. The former speaker says the new freshman legislators are the most extreme he has seen in his 16 terms in the House, many of whom seem more intent on teaching the minority a lesson than in actually governing. “Not everyone who wears a jersey is on the team,” says Hackney of his new colleagues. They seem more motivated by “the general idea that government at all levels must be brought down to size.”
State Sen. Peter Brunstetter concedes the political climate isn’t good and mirrors the popular discontent in Washington, D.C., but he insists it doesn’t have to be that way. “We can disagree on policy issues,” he says, “but there are mechanisms for dealing with the various pressures we have that will take some of the tension off.” The appropriations co-chair is more optimistic than Hackney on the prospect of a return to civility in government, saying “there is more that we agree than disagree on.”
But there are wedges, most recently the constitutional ban on gay marriage passed by North Carolinians in May, that tend to polarize political discourse. “The public will work its will,” says Hackney, “but the institution of the House and Senate must function better than it does now.”
That’s hard to do when a state legislature experiences so much polarization and turnover, impacting how it deals with complex policy issues, according to Al Delia, a senior Perdue adviser who now serves as acting secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. He believes the situation raises a stickier question: How do you govern when you don’t agree?
“Many are new to leadership and have not been part of the General Assembly very long. They are now going through a process of learning,” he says. As a result, “they don’t know the underlying facts of the problems and their solutions to the problems are too simple. It will take time to build trust and get to compromise.”
That assumes, of course, that people actually want to agree on anything, including what we once assumed were generally accepted facts. If you can’t or won’t agree on facts, you don’t have to be obligated to do what would naturally follow. It even gives you all the latitude in the world to be unhappy in different ways, a problem Tolstoy understood all too well.