MUNGER: The real Tarheel coup

A Dec. 16 headline in The Atlantic blared: “The Coup Is Over!” Indignation professionals from around our state gathered at the General Assembly to protest, and to be arrested. What happened?The legislature passed several pieces of legislation in a special session. “Lame duck” Gov. Pat McCrory signed bills sharply, sharply reducing the powers of his office. Of course, these measures really only affect the next governor, Roy Cooper, when he is inaugurated Jan. 7. This flurry of bills does three things: 1) makes cabinet appointments subject to Senate approval; 2) limits the number of appointments the governor can make to regulatory, academic, and other administrative boards; and 3) restricts the governor’s influence on the State Board of Elections.Is this really a “coup?” Or is it just another example of a political group angry at losing, and using language that delegitimizes our already tottering government institutions?I think there are two parts to the answer. First, North Carolina has among the weakest executives in the entire nation, in terms of formal constitutional powers. (Only Rhode Island and Vermont are weaker, according to the Council of State Governments). The actual powers of our governor are mostly those delegated by the legislature, by statute. And whatever can be done by law can undone by law, without being in any way a “coup.” It may be a bad idea — I think the Republicans are making a mistake, one they will regret — but what happened last week was well within the legislature’s constitutional powers, and frankly within political practice.Second, unlike most states—possibly unlike any other state, honestly—North Carolina did once have a successful coup. A real one involving widespread murder, destruction of property, and the violent replacement of one set of elected officials with another set handpicked by a revolutionary junta.As documented by Rob Christensen, in his wonderful book “The Paradox of Tarheel Politics”, politics ranges from leadership and thuggery. But this recent incident hardly even registers on that scale. In 1896, white supremacist Democrats lost control of the state; they resorted to electoral theft to take back control in 1898. When there were protests from the Fusionist coalition of white Populists and black Republicans, the Democrats resolved to end the uncertainty. They massacred black citizens in Wilmington, and burned the then-prosperous “Brooklyn” black business district nearly to the ground. In Raleigh, the Democrats established a substantial majority in the General Assembly, and passed revisions to the Constitution. These amendments were imposed by decree, and were not submitted either to the Governor to be signed, or to the citizens to be ratified. Jim Crow was formally institutionalized throughout the state, in violation of every norm of legal due process. That was a coup.A state legislature acting badly, but inside the constitution, may be unsavory, but the comparison is silly. Besides, Democrats have done something similar. In 1976, after Jim Hunt was elected as Governor, the Democrats in the General Assembly passed legislation that authorized the immediate firing of everyone who had been hired to administrative positions in the past five years. This has come to be referred to as the “Christmas Massacre” by Republicans. Of course, one might very well object that none of that justifies the events of 2016. As Robert Rieves, Democrat from Sanford and member of the General Assembly, tired of being told of Democratic misbehavior in firing public officials put it Friday: “I don’t give a rat’s rear end what somebody did [before] that called themselves a Democrat….Parties change, people change.”Yes, they do change; sometimes people are nice, and sometimes they aren’t. That’s why we have rules. The rules of governance for our state are the Constitution. Things that are not prohibited are allowed. By that standard, there was no coup; NCGA is entirely within its rights. Whether they made a mistake only the future will tell.Michael Munger is a professor of and director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University.