“We had some happy clients when we found out they wouldn’t have to pay the North Carolina estate tax,” Elizabeth Quick, an estate lawyer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told Forbes magazine in July 2013. The state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, had just signed a repeal of the estate tax that removed the obligation for one wealthy family to pay more than $2 million, and another family $680,000, into state coffers.
So that those two families (plus around 20 others) could keep the entirety of their estates intact, the governor and state legislature eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit, depriving 907,000 low-income North Carolinians of state funds that many counted on to pay their utility bills and rent.
Tax cuts for the wealthy are a common Republican tactic, but this wasn’t just a Republican maneuver. McCrory and the GOP-dominated legislature were just getting started on a set of policy changes reflective of a comprehensive and far-reaching neoliberal agenda. Within the first 50 days of the 2013 legislative session, the lawmakers, whose campaigns had been backed by some of the wealthiest families in the state, enacted a string of new laws that transfer wealth from poor to rich. The state moved to refuse federal dollars for expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 more people under the Affordable Care Act; suppress the vote with a restrictive Voter ID law; cut off unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians; and slash teacher salaries to bring North Carolina to 46th place nationwide for teacher pay.
These policies were among the wishes of Art Pope, a retail tycoon and former state representative whose interest in politics is so keen that he became McCrory’s state budget director (a position from which Pope just stepped down amid controversy over how concentrated his power had become). Pope, along with organizations such as the (billionaires and political allies of Pope) Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity—exerts such influence on Gov. McCrory and state legislators that even some Republicans in the state have suggested it is too much. In one egregious example, in 2013, Pope entered the statehouse during debate on a bill that would have allowed public funding of campaigns for judgeships and collared a GOP lawmaker who was considering a compromise, reminding the lawmaker of Pope’s past contribution to his campaign and thus personally ensuring the bill’s death.
Pope also funds North Carolina-based think tanks—such as the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation— that generate research to support the neoliberal agenda that has, in two short years, come to dominate the political process in North Carolina. “He drives the budgetary policy goals of this administration,” complained one anonymous North Carolina Republican lobbyist to the Washington Post in July 2014.
But a grassroots movement is underway to fight back against Pope and the free-market incursions he and other neoliberals are making against the state’s hard-won policies for racial and economic justice. Tapping into the same religious core that fueled the Civil Rights Movement, state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber II has energized a broad swath of people in the state to take to the streets at least 70 times since 2012 to say that enough is enough. Rallying thousands of North Carolinians around a 14-Point People’s Agenda, the Moral Marches (or Moral Mondays, as they were first popularly dubbed) have come to be seen as a touchstone for a renewed social justice movement across the South. As Barber prepared to spread a message of hope and democracy through a week of actions Aug. 22-28 in Raleigh and other Southern state capitals, he talked with me about North Carolina’s free-market ideology and how it has already affected the people who live there. Barber, referring to the billionaire-backed Tea Party, the national group that pushes free-market policies at the local and state level, says these past two legislative sessions have been a “coordinated, premeditated attempt to undermine progress and engage in regressive Tea Party policies.”
“This is really Robin Hood in reverse,” Barber told me. “It is government of business, bought by business, for business. And not just business—because lots of business leaders disagree with them—but this is Tea Party greed. This is Koch brother-type greed.”
Barber bristles, though, at the notion that conservatism or partisan politics are at the root of the problem. “I fuss against these terms ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’,” he says, “because I want to conserve the essence of our Constitution and then liberally make sure everybody has access to them. What we’re dealing with is extremism, and you can’t just define it as ‘conservative.’”
At the local level, says Barber, the state legislature’s extreme adherence to free-market neoliberal policy is gutting the state’s public school system. “Five thousand teachers being fired, being removed, and local school boards decrying [this] because of the impact that it was having on classroom sizes and students,” he says.
Barber adds that, because of the salary cuts, he sees teachers actively leaving North Carolina. “In fact,” he said, “one state, Texas, sent memos out and said if you’re in North Carolina, come to Texas. And you know that’s kind of sad, considering Texas’s regressiveness, when they actually can offer teachers more than North Carolina.”
Barber also described the legislature’s attempt to shift $10 million earmarked for public schools to voucher programs that could only be used to pay for private schools. In shifting these public funds into private hands, said Barber, the legislature refused to require that private schools benefiting from the vouchers maintain the same non-discrimination standards that public schools must uphold, meaning that private schools receiving voucher funds would have been allowed to restrict enrollment however they chose. A Superior Court judge declared on Aug. 21 that the state’s school voucher program is unconstitutional, citing the lack of accountability inherent in the program, and issued a permanent injunction stopping the voucher program from going forward.
Art Pope and the Tea Party aren’t just alienating teachers and progressives, says Barber. They are also alienating Republicans across the state. Barber says that the legislature and McCrory never made clear, even to their own constituents, what they were planning to do once they achieved a supermajority in the statehouse and won the governorship. “They did not run saying, ‘Elect me, I’m going to take your health care, cut your public education, and strip you of your unemployment even if you lost your job at no fault of your own,’” says Barber. “So, we’ve had a Republican unemployed person stand on the stage [at a Moral March] and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I’m unemployed—I didn’t vote for this.’”
Even Republicans holding public office are objecting to the legislature’s actions. Adam O’Neal, a self-described conservative Republican mayor from Belhaven, NC, began a one-man march of 273 miles to Washington D.C. on July 14 to dramatize the impact of Gov. McCrory’s and [House Speaker] Tillis’ refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. O’Neal explained that the lack of Medicaid funds had forced the only hospital in his coastal community to close, creating a “medical desert” that would certainly cost lives. O’Neal also laments the potential economic impact of the hospital closing; he told NPR, “How many people go retire somewhere where it doesn’t even have a hospital?”
I asked Barber what he believes is the neoliberals’ vision for North Carolina. “They believe that the way to a great North Carolina is to deny necessary funds and access to public education. Attack teachers. Deny unemployment. Deny earned income tax credit and other safeguards for the working poor. Deny affordable healthcare and access to healthcare, even if it allows people to die. Deny labor rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights … And then, if you really want a great America after you’ve done all these things, then suppress the right to vote and attempt to use your power to stay in office. And then, after you’ve done all of that to create all this tension, ensure that everyone has access to guns easier than they have access to the polls. Now, that sounds crude and sinister, but those are their policies.”
Having set this grim scene, Barber continued with a surprisingly upbeat message: “Whatever we’re facing now, it’s not greater than slavery, it’s not greater than Jim Crow, it’s not greater than women being denied the right to vote. We won those battles. But we did not win those battles by merely engaging in political arguments. We had to tap into the moral and social consciousness of the nation.”
“I am hopeful,” he went on, “because I believe in the deep moral consciousness at the heart of America. Those of us who believe in justice and who believe in freedom, we are the heartbeat of this nation. Our role now is to be like a social defibrillator, to shock the heart of the nation, to cause it to revive and to remember what the real enemy is: regressive extremism. And it’s not just about winning all the elections, but changing the context in which our politicians have to operate.”
Barber said he hopes that the momentum of the Forward Together Moral Movement (as one of the core groups organizing Moral Marches is currently called) will spread. He sees it moving across the South from North Carolina to help change the political context and create the possibility for the state NAACP’s 14-Point People’s Agenda to be written into legislation both in North Carolina and beyond. The Agenda includes anti-poverty, pro-labor policies; equality and equitable distribution of resources in public education; access to healthcare for all; fairness in the criminal justice system; and protection and expansion of the right to vote and the rights of immigrants.
Barber acknowledges that the neoliberal forces in his state—and across the country—remain powerful. “We’ve got to fight in the courts, we’ve got to fight the legislative halls, we’ve got to fight in the streets, we’ve got to push at the pulpit, and we have to work at the ballot box,” he says. “If we do all of this with what I call a moral critique, so we’re not trapped with the language of Republican versus Democrat, I believe we can continue to work towards the reconstruction of this nation.”