Madison Cawthorn, a Republican, is the youngest member elected to Congress since Jed Johnson Jr. in 1964. So far in this junior congressman's career, he brought a knife to a school board meeting, proudly embraced the big lie about the 2020 election being stolen and conditioned his voters to believe that political violence is justified in the name of God. While Cawthorn aspires to become the next Republican caricature for future Saturday Night Live skits, many North Carolinians continue to wonder how he was ever elected.
Without a doubt, the answer for Cawthorn's victory exists within our state's history. North Carolina, the tar-heel state, has a long history of troubled coexistence between progressives and conservatives. On April 12, 1776, our state became the first to declare independence from Great Britain. Once called "the best poor man's country," North Carolina was home to hard-working farmers and laborers as well as professionals in the research triangle.
However, in 1861, North Carolina followed South Carolina's lead and became one of 11 slave-holding states to secede from the union, which kickstarted the Civil War. After reconstruction ended, the state slid back into repression by restoring its antebellum racial hierarchy. But, progress marched forward despite the return of Jim Crow.
Our state's political history includes a roster of great leaders such as Charles Aycock, the governor who focused on improving public education, Cameron Morrison, the "good roads governor" who resurfaced thousands of miles of state roads and William Kerr Scott, who fought for the common man.
However, despite their accomplishments, our state's history remains a political paradox of progressivism and race-based classism. While Aycock and Morrison improved public services, they also opposed civil rights and women's suffrage. On the other hand, Scott appointed the state's first female superior court judge and assigned the first African American to the state board of education. Altogether, these leaders represent the political contradictions exhibited within North Carolina.
Throughout our state's 400-year history, conservatives actively prevented oppressed citizens from voicing their opinions. Although previous methods included voter intimidation, current ones involve improperly drawn districts—also known as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering silences Black people's, women's, poor whites' and other minority's votes. Republicans have redrawn maps and passed stringent voting laws that many have called out for being blatantly unfair in the past decade. According to the Washington Post, one map was highlighted for its "surgical precision" of targeting Black voters.
Cawthorn's election is an example of extreme partisan gerrymandering that has created non-competitive districts. Republicans won the 11th District, once a swing seat, by drawing a line straight through the largest city in western North Carolina. Asheville, the hippy city of vegans and breweries, was split to dilute the Democratic vote in two districts by attaching half of the city with a large section of conservative rural towns. While this specific map was ultimately blocked from being used in the 2020 election, gerrymandering has set an alarming precedent for future elections.
Many North Carolina voters continue to feel unheard. Republicans, who no longer represent a majority of the state, continue to push against popular change. Gerrymandering is a shameful practice but is nothing new in North Carolina. However, not to say that North Carolina could be the next forever blue state, but if representatives drew districts fairly and proportionally, there could be much pride in knowing that North Carolina is (at the very least) upholding democracy.
Whether you are conservative, liberal or in between, nobody should feel embarrassed when their state comes up in the national conversation. Authentic representation in our state's politics starts by keeping up to date with political news and advocating for yourself and others by calling your representatives. If every voter in North Carolina felt empowered to participate in our state politics, our state would be on the right track toward a true democracy.