By Gabriella Kostrzewa
Apparently, the U.S. Presidential election isn’t the only race heating up almost three years before a vote will be cast. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has all but declared his candidacy for governor in 2016 over the past two weeks. There was the public declaration of Cooper’s support for gay marriage, which is in direct contrast to current Republican Governor Pat McCrory and the Republican establishment that controls the state.
Then there came the editorial in the Huffington Post, a left-leaning, news website. This past Tuesday, Cooper authored an op-ed titled “North Carolina: Threatening Fifty Years of Progress in Ten Months.”
The opening paragraph of the op-ed begins almost like a powerful profile of a person or a description in a fiction novel. Yet the person Cooper is talking about isn’t himself. It’s former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. A man who many argue still encompasses all that is right with North Carolina even years after this death.
Cooper was referencing Sanford’s speech that called for North Carolinians to end unfair discrimination against African Americans in the workplace. It was brave for a governor in the South, and it helped to spur on social change in North Carolina more quickly than other states in the South.
Essentially, there is not a better politician for Cooper to reference, and it encapsulates what Cooper is attempting to do almost three years before a ballot will be cast.
Cooper is cognizant that in order to defeat Governor McCrory, he will have an uphill battle.
North Carolina is an interesting state for politics. It is a state that had a General Assembly controlled by Democrats for over a century yet continually voted for Republicans in presidential elections. Last May, it is also a state that overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage—an issue Cooper has thrown his support behind.
Yet Cooper’s op-ed indicates that he will be approaching this election not just on issues but on how the electorate feels about him. He realizes that he needs to connect with North Carolinians. This editorial is just the beginning of his status as a collective representation of the people.
In his book, The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, Jeffrey C. Alexander defines a collective representation as one who is “a symbolic vessel filled with what citizens hold most dear.”
Alexander argues in this book that President Obama was able to capture the White House in 2008 because he became a collective representation of the people. Obama was able to become a carrier of “intense social energy” and he was able to “project this energy back to society in turn.”
Alexander proposes that a candidate becoming a collective representative takes much more than one event. “It is a matter of establishing broad and compelling connections between political actors and citizen audiences over the course of a campaign,” he writes.
Cooper’s editorial encompasses all that Alexander argues. His invocation of Sanford enables him to discuss the 50 years of progress that North Carolina had after Sanford’s governorship. How North Carolina was an anomaly in the South. A state committed to higher education and innovative changes, and a state that was seen favorably not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. And how, the Republican’s control of North Carolina for the past ten months has eroded all of that progress.
“This is not the North Carolina any of us recognizes,” he writes.
Cooper is inviting the people of North Carolina to join him. The op-ed is not written in the first person. Throughout the editorial, Cooper uses the word “We.” It is never I. Cooper is putting himself on the same level with many North Carolinians. He too is disappointed in the Republican leadership. His angst that North Carolina has dismissed the progress that has defined it over the past half-century is palpable. He isn’t a politician in this editorial. He is a North Carolinian who wants change to occur and for North Carolina to return to being a beacon of social and economic progress not just in the South but the country.
Just as Alexander argues one should do, Cooper is becoming a part of the broad expression of moods across the electorate. Cooper is going to be a carrier of intense social energy. This editorial epitomizes that Cooper is striving to be a collective representation of the people. Just as Terry Sanford was the impetus for change fifty years ago, Cooper will provide that spark once again. He is telling North Carolinians that he is someone they can count on, and most importantly, someone who they will vote for.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2010. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. Oxford University Press, 17-32.