Welcome to The Decade From Hell, our look back at an arbitrary 10-year period that began with a great outpouring of hope and ended in a cavalcade of despair.
In September 2010, Jon Stewart, then the popular host of The Daily Show, sat behind his desk and held up a bright yellow poster. On it were scrawled the words: “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”
The idea behind the poster was simple. Stewart was arguing that some 70 to 80 percent of Americans were being overruled in the political realm by a small percentage of extremists. This argument was the thesis for what would become the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, an event Stewart co-hosted later that October with fellow Comedy Central star Steven Colbert on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in front of an estimated crowd of 215,000. “This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear,” Stewart proclaimed. “They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times.”
Three days after Stewart and Colbert’s rally and their call for a return to normalcy, midterm elections were held across the country. Most headlines and politics-watchers focused on the dramatic Republican gains in the House of Representatives. But the results that would most profoundly shape American politics came not at the national level, but in the state houses and senates, the chambers where state budgets are set and national policies and political movements start their journeys.
In North Carolina, a four-hour cruise down Interstate 95 from the rally, such a movement exploded into existence. The Democratic Party, which went into the election with a comfortable 68-52 lead in the state House and a 30-20 advantage in the Senate, was demolished. Republicans claimed 15 seats in the House and another 11 in the Senate, giving them complete control of the legislature for the first time in over a century.
North Carolina has long functioned as a convenient microcosm of America. Demographically, it has a sizable population, 10 million strong at last count, and is among one of the most diverse states in the nation, with healthy populations and communities built up by Native, black, and Latino citizens. Economically, it was among the states hit hardest by the international trade deals signed in the 1980s and 1990s, which killed its textile industry and consolidated farm ownership. In response, the state looked to rebrand itself as a destination spot for tech companies and manufacturers seeking cheap labor and for the banking industry looking for lower state taxes than could be found in New York. Charlotte quickly and quietly became one of the nation’s most important financial hubs, as Amazon facilities began to infest the state’s rural communities and Dollar Trees replaced mom-and-pop groceries.
Politically, while North Carolina has always harbored a nasty strain of Jesse Helms–style social conservatism, it managed during the latter half of the twentieth century to carve out a surprising legacy of providing its citizens top-tier social services, for instance in the form of a strong public K–12 and university system. But after the 2010 elections, North Carolina, once a progressive beacon in the South, changed course. The rapid reconfiguration of the state would provide a playbook for GOP chapters far and wide.
The first goal of those with power is always to find a way to retain that power. In 2011, with control of the legislature, North Carolina Republicans accomplished this by redrawing the electoral maps, gerrymandering poor and black voters into irrelevance. (The state court that finally ruled on the move in October 2019 found the redistricting illegal, and rife with “partisan intent.”) They also went after the Democratic strongholds in the state’s college towns, passing a law stipulating that if parents wanted to claim their child as a dependent, the young voter would have to submit their ballot in their home district and not at on-campus polling stations. Consequently, in the 2012 elections, 51 percent of North Carolinians voted for a Democratic candidate yet the GOP claimed nine of the state’s 13 available seats in the U.S. House.
With their power thus secured, the state’s Republicans set about winding the clocks back a half-century. House Bill 2, otherwise known as HB2 or “the bathroom bill,” sought to limit the ability of transgender citizens to use the bathroom of their choice; more insidiously, and noted less by the press initially, the bill also kneecapped the few existing legal protections for the trans community against discrimination from employers. The bill sailed through the legislature, and Governor Pat McCrory, elected in 2012, happily adorned it with his signature, kicking off a national boycott campaign by musical artists and the NCAA alike. This was in addition to an outright ban on gay marriage—an unenforceable constitutional amendment achieved through a 2012 referendum.
The state GOP also made quick work of granting its wealthy benefactors and other lucky corporatists some of the lowest corporate tax rates in the nation. Under the guiding hand of then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, now one of the state’s two U.S. senators, North Carolina dropped its estate tax for wealthy heirs and more than halved the corporate tax rate. More recently, in 2018, the party convinced voters to work against their long-term interests with regard to education and infrastructure by capping the state income tax rate at 7 percent.
In addition to slashing corporate taxes to lure out-of-state companies, the legislature tossed out environmental regulations as Duke Energy dumped coal ash in drinking water, and doubled down on its “right to work” status, welcoming Amazon shipping facilities with little worry as to how much they paid their workers just so long as politicians were able to boast about the number of jobs their tax cuts had created. At the same time, the state cut its Earned Income Tax Credit, which had been used by nearly a million low-income citizens before its Republican-induced death.
The goal of privatization naturally extended to public schools, long the crown jewel of the state, particularly in light of dire educational statistics in the rest of the South. Republicans cut over 4,000 public school teaching positions, lifted the limit on charter schools, and redirected public funds to private schools, many of them religiously affiliated. This led to the re-segregation of public schools and protests by teachers, who, like all public employees, are barred by state law from unionizing.
Among other initiatives, the state GOP has continued to stonewall on Medicaid expansion, despite the existence of nearly a million uninsured citizens. It also passed a bill to jail women for exposing their nipples, tried to establish Christianity as the official state religion, and used the Charleston massacre as inspiration to protect Confederate monuments.
There is no one person in North Carolina to blame for this development, though there are plenty of options: Dallas Woodhouse, the longtime executive director of the state GOP, is a worthy candidate, but once one looks beyond his stunts—like his infamous handcuff-shaking at Hillary Clinton on MSNBC—he’s not much more than a party prop. Phil Berger, the leader of the Republican state Senate, has done little but peddle half-truths and outright lies to the public for years on end. Maybe the ire should be saved for McCrory, who was more than happy to play the puppet for mastermind GOP financier Art Pope, who underwrote many of these candidacies.
But to single out any one person is to ignore the systemic nature of the problem and the power-hoarding at its core. When McCrory lost the 2016 election to Democrat Roy Cooper, Republicans first challenged the results. When that didn’t pan out, they used a last-minute special session purportedly dedicated to providing relief funds for hurricane victims to strip Cooper of numerous appointment powers. In his place, the GOP-dominated legislature decided that it, and not the governor, would make these appointments itself.
Reflecting on just how successful the GOP has been in reshaping North Carolina’s politics over the past decade should serve as both a warning and a signal of the abject failure of the party tasked with opposing it.
As comforting as it would be to consider North Carolina a unique example, it was not alone in this sudden shift. Prior to the 2010 election, Democrats had a comfortable command among state legislatures—of the 44 states holding elections that day, the party enjoyed majorities in 23 state senates and 29 state houses. When the dust settled, it was the Democrats staring upward. Republicans picked up majority control over seven more state senates and 13 state houses, giving them an overall advantage in controlled chambers of 53-32, a nearly complete reversal from the situation going into the day.
Some of the backlash can be seen as a casualty of the Democrats holding the White House for eight years, with much of it part of the openly racist reaction to the nation’s first black president. This response was funneled into mainstream conservative culture by way of the Tea Party and the various reactionary movements and splinter factions it ushered into the limelight. But the Democratic Party’s inability to truly reckon with its many shortcomings—notably its lack of funding for down-ballot races in these state legislature races—helped hand the keys of dozens of state governments back to Republicans. Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic National Committee spokesperson, admitted as much to NPR in the weeks before the 2016 election. “Democrats just have not played that game as well as Republicans have,” Elleithee said. “Part of that is resources. The Republicans have more money that they pump into those races. And just the lack of focus on these races has been part of the problem.”
As a result, the situation in North Carolina was replicated numerous times over. In Texas, a transphobic bathroom bill mirroring North Carolina’s seemed destined to pass in the legislature before corporate interests worshipping the almighty dollar saw the mess it had made in the Tar Heel state and leaned on Texas conservatives to drop it. Two years after Cooper had the rug pulled out from under him, the Wisconsin GOP played the same trick, rushing to reassign appointment powers when Democratic candidate Tony Evers won the gubernatorial election in the 2018 midterms. Everywhere from Arizona to California to Colorado, teachers have been forced to take to the streets to revolt against stagnant postrecession wages set by state budgets.
In states including Georgia and Alabama, extreme abortion restrictions sailed through the legislatures and were signed into law by Republican governors. Conservatives in Utah and Idaho blocked Medicaid expansion until voters overruled them, prompting the GOP politicians to do everything in their power to limit its reach. Virginia’s state legislature happily sold itself to energy company Dominion and ushered in the natural gas–carrying Atlantic Coast Pipeline. And across the board, save in the rare case of New York telling Amazon to go kick rocks, state governments have caved to the whims of corporate interests, slashing corporate tax rates by nearly an entire percentage point since 2014.
Stewart’s message that some 80 percent of Americans are a lot more similar in their beliefs than they are different has, by now, been proven untrue countless times over. For many people, the stakes in allowing the right wing to control state and now national politics are high—much higher than they are for the wealthy talking heads on national television. Characterizing the results of the post-2010 shift as merely “hard times” (to use Stewart’s words) greatly undersells how poisoned the political landscape has become, thanks in large part to those who claim we needed only to compromise and cross the aisle and shake the hands of our political enemies. Whether the 2010 elections ushered in the “end times” remains to be seen: The future will depend on how committed politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Cooper, are to making up for lost time on climate change.
It’s been said before, but a rude press is a good press, and civility is overrated. The opponent may not be Hitler, but he or she doesn’t need to be in order to enact heinous and harmful policies that cost people their livelihood, dignity, and health. When the state legislatures of the nation made their hard right turn, it should have served as a wake-up call for the overpaid National Politics Knowers, specifically those in the DNC. Instead, 10 years out, marginalized citizens, be they poor or transgender or black, are still the only ones acting with the necessary urgency, and the end of hard times is nowhere in sight.