What happened last week in Raleigh wasn't exactly a surprise. After all, for weeks, rumors spread that the General Assembly, in response to Democrat Mike Morgan's election to the N.C. Supreme Court, was considering packing the court—rumors fueled by top Republicans' refusal to deny them.
In the end—after N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse mocked journalists for reporting on these rumors, though on Monday, Governor McCrory took credit for killing the court-packing scheme—Republicans chose a different means of subverting democracy. The covertly planned, hastily announced special session was designed both to neuter incoming governor-elect Roy Cooper and to remind Cooper's voters who's really in charge. It was a ruthless exercise in power for power's sake. Or, as Representative David Lewis, R-Harnett, told reporters, Republicans wanted to "establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state."
It'd be tempting to ask Lewis and his ilk—as Joseph Welch once asked Senator Joseph McCarthy—"Have you no sense of decency, sir?" But the truth is, when you have power, decency is irrelevant. In North Carolina, the Republicans have power, and by God they're going to use it. That this power is derived from an illegitimate source—a racist and nakedly partisan gerrymander, recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal court—doesn't cause them a flicker of shame.
The purported justification for this power grab is rooted in a generation-old grudge: that forty years ago, then-Governor-elect Jim Hunt fired GOP appointees and, thirty years ago, Democrats limited the political appointments Republican Governor Jim Martin could make. But these post hoc rationalizations are just that, and they elide what's really going on here—an erosion of the norms by which democracy functions.
This isn't a new phenomenon, nor was it conceived on Jones Street. Rather, it's a byproduct of hardening polarization and a zero-sum-game mentality in which the ends—the cultivation of power—justify the means. And that's why, more than the harm any individual bill will cause, the coup effected by Republicans last week matters.
This same mentality has pervaded Washington, D.C., throughout the Obama presidency. Before Barack Obama even took the oath, Republican leaders had declared a stout and rigid determination to never negotiate or compromise, to stand resolute behind unwavering and unified obstinacy against everything Obama proposed, to break the federal government and then blame the president for it being broken.
They were rewarded for this strategy with big victories up and down the ballot in 2010 and 2014. And it continued this year, when the U.S. Senate declined to give Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court so much as a hearing, an unprecedented move that, yet again, proved successful.
Donald Trump took this norm-shattering to a new zenith, running a campaign that flagrantly trafficked in conspiracies and lies and called for a political opponent to be imprisoned. He, too, prevailed.
So why wouldn't N.C. Republicans—who've spent the last four years manifesting a right-wing fever dream—follow suit?
This is hardly the first time the state's Republicans have extended a middle finger to democracy in their quest for hegemony: the legislative and congressional gerrymanders testify to that, as do the legislature's efforts to redraw districts for Wake County's commission and school board and Greensboro's city council. So too did Republicans' voter-suppression scheme, which sought to make it harder for African Americans to vote (it was also ruled unconstitutional). And then there's HB 2, which overrode local nondiscrimination and living-wage ordinances and, more important, sent an unmistakable signal to municipalities to not step out of line.
But this latest example is the most egregious, not only because democracies are dependent on losers accepting the outcome, but also because, as Paul Waldman wrote Monday in The Washington Post, "There's a shamelessness to the way Republicans change rules, trample over long-established norms, and generally act as though any result except one in which they win is inherently illegitimate."
They do it because they can, and because no one can stop them. This is what the politics of nihilism—the politics of ruthlessness and shamelessness—looks like. And, quite likely, it's what the politics of the next four years will look like, too. The rejection of democratic mores has worked out pretty well for the GOP. No reason to stop now.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Politics of Nihilism."