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By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Political colorists can be promiscuous in calling states purple, but my state is true to that hue. I speak of North Carolina, and I have receipts: While our junior senator, Ted Budd, is a Republican who won election to a first term in 2022 by about three percentage points, our governor, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat who won election to a second term in 2020 by more than four. Donald Trump prevailed in North Carolina that same year, but only barely.
This is not a land of blowouts. It’s a middle ground, and that’s reflected in voter registration rolls. Nearly 2.6 million North Carolinians declare themselves unaffiliated, while just over 2.4 million identify as Democrats and just under 2.2 million as Republicans. We don’t tilt. We teeter.
In a healthier democracy, that would be an amulet against extremism. In ours, not so much.
The North Carolina Supreme Court, which switched to a Republican majority from a Democratic one in the midterm elections last November, just reversed a ruling from last year and cleared the way for the Republicans in the General Assembly to gerrymander North Carolina’s congressional districts — which they will almost certainly do.
How can I be sure? That earlier court ruling voided a Republican-drawn map that probably would have led to a U.S. House delegation of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, while the replacement map yielded the current, appropriate split of seven and seven. That’s a huge comedown from what Republicans wanted and from what they’ve repeatedly tried to get for nearly 15 years. Without any fear that the state’s Supreme Court will foil them before the 2024 congressional elections, they don’t have to settle for it.
“This round of gerrymandering may be even worse,” Asher Hildebrand, a fellow professor of mine at Duke University who studies the issue, told me. He floated the possibility of a congressional map that seeks to give Republicans an 11-to-three advantage “and state legislative maps that lock in Republican supermajorities for the foreseeable future.” Never mind how unrepresentative of North Carolina that would be. People in power like to hoard and hold on to it.
And to wield it, whether their policies are popular or not. While the new Supreme Court here issues rulings of a strong partisan bent, Republican lawmakers are adopting or advancing a full complement of the party’s present fixations. They’re emboldened: Thanks to gerrymandered state districts, success in the midterms and one state lawmaker’s recent party switch, Republicans have supermajorities in the State Senate and House, bolstering their chances of securing enough votes to override Governor Cooper’s frequent vetoes.
“North Carolina Republicans aren’t really any less extreme than Tennessee Republicans or Texas Republicans — they’ve just been forced to share power for the last six years with a Democratic governor and a majority-Democrat Supreme Court,” Hildebrand said. “Now that their power is essentially unchecked, they’ll be asking other state legislators to hold their beer.”
They have already relaxed restrictions on firearms. They want to prevent teachers from talking about systemic racism. Last month the House passed a bill that would bar transgender girls from participating in female sports competitions; on Wednesday the House passed a separate bill banning gender-affirming surgeries for transgender people under the age of 18. On Wednesday the House also passed a bill that would change the state’s current ban on most abortions after 20 weeks to a ban on most abortions after 12. That’s just a snapshot of Republicans’ agenda.
“They have immediate plans to use their supermajorities to reduce tax rates to levels that the governor’s office estimates would reduce our general fund revenue by 25 percent per year, causing the state to fall billions of dollars short of our obligations,” State Senator Graig Meyer, a Democrat, told me. “Surprisingly to me, they are also pushing all sorts of legislation that chips away at our previously bipartisan efforts to develop a clean tech economy.”
And they may well succeed, because Republicans in North Carolina have used “both skillful political maneuvering and brutal legislative tactics to develop supermajority power in the legislature and complete control of our courts, even though our state is about a 50-50 split politically,” Meyer said. “Policies that the G.O.P. base is demanding are getting farther away from what average voters will tolerate.”
But average voters don’t matter — that’s the lesson of and message in so much of what Republicans are doing in states around the country. They are enacting laws, like Florida’s six-week abortion ban, that defy public sentiment. In Ohio and Missouri, they are trying to change the rules so that a majority alone is not enough for a voter referendum to succeed.
Their highhandedness extends to such extraordinary actions as the Tennessee House’s expulsion of two Democratic lawmakers last month and the Montana House’s recent silencing of a transgender Democrat. And their movement ever further rightward means that the person heavily favored to win the party’s 2024 nomination for governor here in North Carolina is Mark Robinson, the Republican lieutenant governor, who is, as I wrote early this year, “extremism incarnate: gun-loving, gay-hating and primed for conspiracy theories, with a garnish of antisemitism to round out the plate.”
In him and in so many other Republican leaders in this state, I see almost no regard for the center. I see no interest in real consensus. I see the same arrogance and winner-takes-all attitude that are on display all around the country — and that are the antithesis of ethical, responsible, democratic government. It leaves me red-faced, even in this purple place.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Shannon Proudfoot noted that the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, started off by trying to be more transparent than his predecessor, Stephen Harper, had been: “If the Harper government’s instinct was to turn the hose on any kids it found playing on its lawn, then the Trudeau government promised to fling open the front door and offer a rap session over a nice cool glass of lemonade.” (Thanks to John Sims of Ottawa for nominating this.)
In the Mort Report, Mort Rosenblum despaired: “Too many voters today are easily conned, deeply biased, impervious to fact and bereft of survival instincts. Contrary to myth, frogs leap out of heating pots. Stampeding cattle stop at a cliff edge. Lemmings don’t really commit mass suicide. We’ll find out about Americans in 2024.” (Larry Sax, Bridgeport, Conn.)
In The New Yorker, Casey Cep examined the fiction, including “True Grit,” of Charles Portis, noting: “In a Portis novel, when you ride off into the sunset you have to make camp in the dark.” (Shelley Allison, Carrollton, Tex.) Also: “The stakes in his work are never quite salvation or damnation — there’s nowhere as high as Heaven or as low as Hell. Instead, his pilgrims traverse the eschatological latitudes in between, relying for guidance on the modern scriptures of advertising, legal writs and road signs.” (Dan Hallahan, Charlottesville, Va.)
Also in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead wondered at King Charles’s verbal stumbles: “He is notoriously hostile to modern architecture, and, in a vitriolic 1987 speech to a gathering of distinguished British planners and designers, he proclaimed, ‘You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe — when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.’ Charles’s remarks bring to mind the internet era’s Godwin’s law, which holds that once an argument escalates online someone inevitably invokes the Nazis; usually, though, the comparison is not in the Nazis’ favor.” (Miriam Siekevitz, Redwood City, Calif.)
And Andrew Marantz reminisced about Tucker Carlson’s wondrous reign at Fox News: “And who could forget the ‘Tucker Carlson Originals’ special ‘The End of Men,’ which introduced the world to ‘bromeopathy,’ the patriotic practice of bathing one’s testicles in red light? That special also featured hand-wringing about ‘soy boys,’ paeans to raw-egg slonkers and homoerotic montages, apparently filmed on Alex Jones’s bocce court, that looked like Abercrombie & Fitch ads directed by Leni Riefenstahl.” (Peter J. Comerford, Providence, R.I., and Allan Tarlow, West Hollywood, Calif.)
In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson marveled at Ron DeSantis’s fixation on Disney: “The more he persists, the more attention he draws away from the shiny object he wanted to show off to the MAGA crowd — the anti-gay education bill — and puts the spotlight, instead, on his own Ahab-like pursuit of the Little Mermaid.” (Lorrie Gervin, San Jose, Calif., and Tom Cosgrove, Arlington, Va., among others)
In The Times, Mike Tanier assessed the Indiana Colts’ pick of Anthony Richardson in the first round of the N.F.L. draft, comparing him to the star quarterback of the Buffalo Bills: “Richardson has the arm strength, athleticism and sheer size to rival Josh Allen but about as much experience (13 collegiate starts) as the intern who filled your office coffee machine with copy toner.” (Mark Grove, Indianapolis)
Also in The Times, Dwight Garner reviewed “Death of an Author,” a stunt novella whose language “is 95 percent machine-generated, somewhat like the food at a Ruby Tuesday.” Garner went on to philosophize: “Fiction matters more now, in a world increasingly deracinated by technology. A.I. will never pose a threat to the real thing — to writing with convictions, honest doubts, riddling wit, a personal vision of the world, rawness and originality. Another word for these qualities is soul, which is exactly what ChatGPT lacks. Left wholly naked in front of the A.I. onslaught may be the writers of certain formulaic best sellers, but that’s a matter for their agents.” (Benjamin D. Diamond, Washington, D.C.)
Finally, you occasionally send in headlines that you find especially delightful, and I occasionally include one of them, such as this recent gem in Texas Monthly: “Apocalypse Sow: Can Anything Stop the Feral Hog Invasion?” (Sylvia Pearl, Maplewood, N.J.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Watching and Reading
The characters in “The Diplomat,” which tracks an American ambassador’s efforts to contain Britain’s response to an attack on one of its ships, don’t talk the way actual people do. They speak in artful evasions, mischievous signals, insider argot and the occasional overripe soliloquy. That’s the glory of the show’s eight 50-minute episodes, streaming on Netflix, and it’s made possible by a cast of actors, including Keri Russell as the ambassador, who are dexterous enough for the dialogue. Every one of them is superb, but I was especially taken with Ali Ahn as a C.I.A. station chief, Ato Essandoh as the ambassador’s principal handler, Nana Mensah as the White House chief of staff and Rory Kinnear as the British prime minister. The plot is satisfyingly layered, ambiguous, adult — and ludicrous at times, but that’s the nature of these government-intrigue stories. By the yardsticks of “Homeland” and “House of Cards,” “The Diplomat” is practically eight hours of unedited C-SPAN footage.
So much of American life seems more ruthlessly sorted — by income, by ideology, by taste — than ever, so I loved reading Jeffrey Fleishman’s recent reminiscence in The Los Angeles Times about the contradictory scenes and diverse characters in downtown Los Angeles over time. It reassured me that there are indeed places where or moments when the gloriously messy mix of humanity is on display. It reminded me why cities are so essential — and such magic.
On a Personal Note
And what of the city I left nearly two years ago, New York, in which I spent about 22 years, on and off, of my adult life? Do I long for its messy mix of humanity?
My friends there assume so and ask me why I’ve made so few return visits. I give many answers — I’m busy, it’s costly, it’s not the right time of year — but seldom the truest one: I flipped some sort of switch when I went from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to my house in a lush suburban setting here in North Carolina, and this has become (political climate notwithstanding) my comfort zone. It’s what feels right. It’s what feels good.
People like to call its manner of pleasures simpler. They’re just different, and while they’re unremarkable to someone steeped in them, they’re revelatory to an urbanite who went from Manhattan to Washington to Rome and back to Manhattan, who has traded neighborhoods dense with people for one thick with trees.
Everything around my house bloomed earlier this year than last, and it bloomed suddenly, so that I awoke one morning in early March to blazes of color — the red azaleas beside my driveway, the pink camellias in front of my house, the purple finery of paradoxically named redbuds out back — that had seemingly been painted onto the yard overnight. I couldn’t gaze at all these flowers without feeling a tiny jolt of joy.
They’re already gone, but that eye candy has been replaced by ear candy: The bird song in late April and early May is unusually loud and clear. I’m writing this at dawn, when the chirping begins its crescendo, and I can make out three distinct voices, three distinct species. They alternate and then they overlap, blending into what almost seems to be an intentional chorus. For now, and for a change, it’s the music of home.
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