Today’s failure: My attempt to see Pat McCrory’s point

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. Photo by Hal Goodtree.

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. Photo by Hal Goodtree.

I try hard to see both sides to every situation (l’avocat du diable, remember?), but in the case of North Carolina governor Pat McCrory’s recent leadership of a right-wing takeover of the North Carolina state legislature, I’m not quite sure I’m up to the task.

On education: McCrory has backed a $135m cut to the UNC system. When asked why, he said, “We have a choice. We can keep doing it the same way with the same results or we can change and think out of the box.” Hm. Besides the fact that this is a non-answer to the question . . . I think the results of NC’s investment in higher education have been pretty good–world-class university system, good environment for research business . . . (And while we’re on the subject of education, maybe I should mention his blood-boiling comments on liberal arts education this last winter or his continuing low pay for public school teachers–see this open letter from an elementary school teacher that’s been circulating recently, and this marvelous piece of sarcasm about McCrory’s “changing position” on the liberal arts.)

On voter identification: He has signed one of the tightest sets of restrictions on voting in the country to “combat voter fraud.” What evidence is there of voter fraud in NC? “Well the fact of the matter is we aren’t looking for voter fraud.” Oh. Well I think you better start looking, and I sure hope you find some, because otherwise it might look like you’re just trying to prevent poor people, people of color, and young people from voting against you.

I could go on: his expansion of gun rights, his restrictions of women’s rights, his shifting of tax burdens from the wealthy to the poor, his appointment of Art Pope, a big-bucks donator to his campaign some liken to the Koch brothers, as his Budget Director, a victimization complex regarding all the “extreme-left” attacks on his administration, the blood of the innocent he sprinkles on his cornflakes every morning . . .

You see how easy it is to get all hot and bothered. When I set out to write this post, I vowed I would try to see McCrory’s policy decisions from his perspective. I would go to his website, listen to interviews with him, try to pretend I was a life-long Republican crying “Amen.” This is a blog about perception, for crying out loud! I know how easy it is for my liberal leanings to influence my perception of this conservative governor. I wanted to perceive his work as he wanted me to. And I did, for about five minutes.

As an example, let’s focus on the interview I quoted above on voter identification. When he says that we’re not looking for voter fraud, he means to point out an egregious mistake. We should be looking for voter fraud, he’s saying, because “if we’re naïve enough to think that there’s not voter fraud in the 10th largest state in the United States of America, then I think we’ve got our head in the sand.” Okay, I agree that people shouldn’t be allowed to vote more than once. I’m with you there.

But let’s look at some of the other assumptions behind McCrory’s rhetorical position in just those few sentences.

  • First assumption: people will commit fraud if you don’t watch them like a hawk.

Certainly there are cases in which this is true. There are also cases in which it is less true, so I don’t think it’s the best data to build important, restrictive legislation on. Surely actual data would be more useful. According to McCrory, we don’t have that data, because we “aren’t looking for voter fraud.” But here is the summary of findings and conclusions from a 2012 Department of Justice study by Lorraine C. Minnite:

Based on findings from my research on voter fraud in contemporary U.S. elections, I conclude that “stringent” photo identification requirements to vote are not justified by claims that such requirements are needed to reduce or prevent voter impersonation forms of election fraud because as the empirical record makes clear, fraud committed by voters either in registering to vote or at the polls on Election Day is already exceedingly rare. For example, national data on illegal registration and voting in the 2002 midterm and 2004 presidential elections in which a total of more than 197 million votes were cast show that the percentage of illegal votes was statistically zero. Of the twenty-six persons convicted by the federal government between 2002 and 2005 of illegal registration or of casting illegal ballots, there was no evidence that any of them impersonated other or fictitious voters.

 

  • Related assumption: the more people there are in the state (after all, NC is the 10th largest state!), the higher the likelihood of fraud.

Well, if you compare the (alleged) proportion of voter fraud in NC, which has a higher population than Idaho, to the same proportion of fraud in Idaho, then yes, there will be more cases of fraud in NC than in Idaho. But there is no evidence to suggest a higher population leads to a higher proportion of voter fraud. And proportion is the one that counts (that’s kind of how voting works). The size of the state is completely irrelevant to McCrory’s point; he’s just trying to make his state sound important. This is the kind of sound-bite insertion all politicians do, and it’s annoying, but since everyone does it, I’ll give him a pass.

  • Related assumption: his audience really doesn’t want to be thought of as naïve.

This, I think, is the kernel. The Republican ethos says, “I’m self-made and self-sufficient,” “You can’t get one over on me,” and “I know what I know, and I won’t have outsider elites telling me how things are.”  Lots of defenders of anti-voter fraud legislation say requiring id is “common sense,” and that it’s not about statistics (read: the educated elite can’t tell me what is necessary). This self-reliant ethos is not entirely bad–there’s a time and place for it. But in this case, I think it’s skewing Republican policy in a direction that’s ultimately bad for our democracy.

That down-to-earth ethos is not the only thing that’s interfering with Republicans’ perception of the issues. We also have to consider the very real gains Republicans stand to win from restricting the voting opportunities of populations who historically vote Democrat. I don’t mean to suggest that NC’s voting rights act is entirely, consciously motivated by the desire for political advancement. I don’t want to imply that all Republicans have been sitting in a smoke-filled room rubbing their hands and saying, “Now, how can we get Democrats barred from voting?” Or worse yet, “Things were so much better in the good old Jim Crow days, when African American citizens couldn’t turn up in droves to vote against us. Now that the Supreme Court has denied the necessity for voter protection in the South, we can go back to those days! Thank God!” But even if Republicans aren’t all scheming like this consciously, I have no doubt that the fact that their party stands to gain by the new law has influenced their perception of the situation. The drive for gain, even if unconscious, gives arguments for their own side more weight, and suddenly “we have to prevent people from cheating our democracy” becomes an unassailable common-sense principle. Then claims that nobody was cheating in the first place become quite beside the point.

In the end, my effort to see McCrory’s point of view has not made me more sympathetic to his cause. It has confirmed my inclination to see the new voter identification law as a bad idea, so in a sense I failed. But my exercise was still useful, I think. Even if it confirmed my previously held opinion, it transformed that opinion from a knee-jerk reaction to a considered position. Now if only McCrory would do the same thing. And come to the same conclusion.

;)

9 thoughts on “Today’s failure: My attempt to see Pat McCrory’s point

  1. Rachel, as I read this piece, two books come to mind: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided. . .” by Jonathan Haidt; and “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life” by Charles Duhigg. Are you familiar with these?

    In the Righteous Mind, Haidt points out that the vast majority of people at both ends of the political spectrum (there are malicious scoundrels at both ends—we are not talking about those folks here) are good and honest folks who are sincerely working for what they think is best for society. And when these good and honest people get hammered for their beliefs, they recoil in puzzled alarm and fear—and proceed to build their wall of protection as a survival instinct. The challenge in political discourse is to frame the discussion in such a way that these good and honest folks all along the spectrum hear the various points of view and react with respect and tolerance instead of fear. If this can happen, we have the basis upon which to build a good society where diversity (coupled with respect) is considered an advantage, not a divider.

    Duhigg claims that habit rules way more than we realize in all compartments of life (religious, political, social, economic). Habit is the great economizer. It allows us to go on automatic, rationing out our energy. It builds and nurses the ultimate comfort zone. This is useful to some degree as we do need to economize our energy. But it also stifles creativity and innovation. In politics, for example, we are guided/driven by habit far more than we realize. When we hear calls for action that take us out of our habitual comfort zone, we cringe—and proceed to build that wall. . . Finding the balance between economizing and innovation is a challenge, and the placement of that balance is different for each person.

    I really like the title of your blog. And your writing is great.

    • I haven’t read either of those books, but they sound great. You say Haidt points out that people don’t like being hammered for their beliefs, and recoil from those who hammer them. This is a good point. Unfortunately I think it’s clear–both from political coverage and reality TV–that people do like to watch other people getting hammered, especially if the person doing the hammering is saying what they always thought but couldn’t express. We love to join in this kind of gladiatorial fighting vicariously. Why?

      It’s true about the importance of habit, too. I think habit becomes even more important when we realize that habits are not only comfortable and easy, but also identity-building. My habit of agreeing with liberal commentators is part of my identity, and it’s hard to get out of that.

      And thanks for your kind words about my writing and the title. :)

  2. I read and tried to read into both sides of what McCrory is doing. As I read your blog and various links it seems that most of the information can seem like a positive or negative depending on who’s writing & reading the article. From the little bit of research I did it seems as though we have a budget that is allocated to our school system each year of 2.5 Billion (12% of the state’s budget). Of the 15 schools in the UNC system I can’t see how a 135 Million dollar cut is going to shut down two schools. At most it may close one school or make everyone “trim the fat” so to speak. I see waste everywhere in all forms of business and say what you want but Universities are in the business of making money. A 5.4% cut in their budget would in my mind make them take a look at their own waste.

    Changes in Education are needed! We rank 32nd among 50 states. That’s horrible in my opinion. I would like there to be more of a focus on Primary Education. Better teacher pay, better resources and smaller class sizes. We should take notice and start reflecting what top performing states are doing; instead of entrenching ourselves in what doesn’t work. We also need to quit teaching children to just be good test takers.

    I agree on both sides of the Liberal Arts Education. You do need things (classes or outside interests) that help to expand your consciousness and make you a free thinker. On the other hand the majority get an education so they can get a better paying job. I feel like if there was an article that didn’t have “McCrory declares war on Liberal Arts” splashed across it’s headline; the same things could be written and people would just think he’s trying to create more jobs. That’s how I read into it, but I’m not naive enough to think that I’m not swayed going into the argument either. I believe he wants to get back to some basically taught life skills that aren’t preparing our young people for “real life”. I know when I left high school or college I didn’t know how my credit score affected me. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook or fill out simple forms without making sure I didn’t sign my life away. Those should not be trial and error lessons!

    As for any gun law they apply to law abiding citizens. Those that want to break the law will surly find a way. I disagree with the on campus availability but then again there are states that are arming some teachers for the coming school year too. I haven’t read into his abortion changes but a woman’s body is her own to do with as she see’s fit so I’ll just stay off that subject.

    From my perspective I thought his tax reform was a pretty good deal for all North Carolinians. It is possible that it will (if certain revenues are met) drive down Corporate Taxes which I believe is an effort again to create jobs. You know lower unemployment, less needy, etc… good stuff!

    For my thoughts on Voter Fraud please see my link that I posted on you FB post the other day. All this talk about a simple ID to be able to vote. Who are these poor souls that don’t have a birth certificate or drivers license? A way to cash a check? A library card? No way to get let into a bar that cards people? I don’t believe immigrants and felons are turning out in droves to make sure their vote is counted but, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy or the need to have 158% turn out rate for a voting district either.

    Last but not least I’m willing to give the man and his policies a chance. I believe he did some good things for Charlotte and ultimately wants to do good for our state. Plus any man that “sprinkles the blood of the innocent on his cornflakes in the morning” is bound for an Showtime series of his own soon after his political career is over. :)

    PS: That was a great quote and I had to steal it!

    • I appreciate your comments on education and voter ID issues. First, I have to point out that NC ranks 47 out of 50 for amount it spends on education per student. NC also ranks 48th out of 50 for salaries paid to teachers. Both of these statistics are from the NEA, National Education Association (link to site and pdf: http://www.nea.org/home/54597.htm). If you accept these two statistics to be accurate, then you may agree NC needs to spend more not less on education.
      On the topic of voter ID laws, the goal of democracy is to include more individuals into the process not introduce obstacles for this to occur. Though you may not personally know people who do not possess the new ID requirements to vote, I am fairly confident they do exist. We have to add not only the ID aspect of these new measures, but also the additional measures to make voting more difficult along with them. The law also reduced early voting from 17 days to 10 days. 61% of votes cast this past election cycle occurred through early voting, so this is a significant change. A voter also cannot register and vote on the same day; this normally increases voter turnout. Students are no longer allowed to use their college IDs when it has been perfectly legal and highly successful in increasing student voting. No evidence exist students are committing voter fraud. In Boone, NC the local government eliminated two of the three voting precincts that happened to be on college campuses. Now students will all have to travel to an off campus location where only 25 parking stops are available. This tactic appears to be spreading (http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/08/22/3128791/nc-election-boards-train-on-new.html). The law also eliminates voting on Sunday, where many African American churches have historically created voting drives to get out the vote. As you can see this all has a combinatorial effect of reducing the overall voting turnout. Not surprisingly, these measures affect students, older individuals, and African Americans the most. Shouldn’t we be making a citizen’s constitutionally granted exercise of voting easier and not more difficult.

    • First of all, thank you so much for commenting–thank God for civil disagreement! Of course it’s true that information in general can seem positive or negative depending on who is doing the writing–that’s why we have to pay attention to rhetoric and our perception of it.

      I hear what you’re saying about waste and “trimming the fat”–yes, most organizations, especially state-run organizations, do have waste. I would be thrilled if everything could be more streamlined. But as both a student and a teacher in the UNC system today, I can tell you that more than fat is being trimmed.

      As for universities being “in the business of making money,” I fervently hope not. I do see a trend toward the corporatization of education, and I think it’s a very, very bad idea. The value systems are profoundly different, and I think we need both. But that’s a subject for another post. I also strongly support liberal arts education, but that too is too large a topic to cover here–someday I’ll write a post about it–and I know you’re waiting with baited breath!

      When I said things were going well in education, I was referring specifically to the cuts in the UNC system, and I don’t think anyone can doubt the quality of UNC. I agree changes in primary and secondary school education are needed, but in my mind they should be in the direction of more teacher support, not less. I agree with you when you say we need better teacher pay, better resources, and smaller class sizes (especially the better teacher pay and smaller class sizes).

      About the tax reform, I hear what you’re saying, and if I were convinced that what McCrory has done will really lead to lower unemployment, etc., I’d be entirely on board. I think we just have different predictions about what will help the economy.

      And about voter ID. I did check out your link to Snopes the other day (http://www.snopes.com/politics/ballot/2012fraud.asp), and it unequivocally proves my point. It says reported allegations of voter fraud are false, and it gives one article as an example of those false reports. It’s a perfect example of the kind of rhetoric I’m talking about: “Most everyone suspected fraud, but these numbers prove it and our government and media refuse to do anything about it.” No, most everyone did not suspect fraud, and the government and media “refuse to do anything about it” because it wasn’t true. What really bothers me is that now the media is reporting it as if it IS a real thing to be reckoned with, all because of some blatant fabrications.

      Again, thank you for engaging in such a civil way, and though I’m not budging on the voter id law, other points you make do represent differing positions on issues we just don’t have easy answers to. So long live the debate!

  3. I’ve been through a process similar to the one you present in the blog many times in the last few months. I struggle with understanding the position of our right-leaning legislators, and McCrory’s unsatisfactory answers don’t lead me any closer to understanding.

    I’m frustrated by the “majority rules” position. While I respect that Republicans legitimately won the vote of the people, I’m most frustrated by the lack of discussion and, in some cases, outright evasion of discussion that precedes these votes. We seem to be more and more incapable of compromise, of doing exactly what you’ve done here trying to engage with multiple perspectives. I think liberal arts educations do exactly that– help us see things from multiple perspectives. Our increasing emphasis at all levels of education on finding a correct answer as opposed to good questions and the process that leads to our answer may be partly to blame.

    • Good point. It seems to me too that people talk past each other in politics ALL THE TIME. They’re so anxious to get their sound bite covered, they don’t actually respond to what’s on the table. That, or they think they’ll be perceived as defensive, or weak. So they just keep pushing their own agenda without really listening at all.

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