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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Progressivism is rooted in rural North Carolina


As Anderson Clayton becomes the new Chairperson of the North Carolina Democratic Party, concerns about rural parts of North Carolina, like Pittsboro, being overlooked arise.

A voice has cracked through the establishment politicking of the North Carolina Democratic Party. 

It demands to be heard. It is rural, it is young and it is fierce.

It is Anderson Clayton — and it can be all of us.   

Appalachian State University alumna and 25-year-old Anderson Clayton toppled the status quo, unexpectedly defeating the establishment-endorsed incumbent. Glasses have been wiped, double takes have been tripled and heads have been turned. 

Clayton's election to the chairperson of the NCDP poses a unique opportunity for progress in rural North Carolina — with its youth leading the way.

This election could be shrugged off — just a glitch.

But it could be a crack, letting much-needed fresh air into an otherwise dismal political landscape. The election could signal a welcome shift to mobilize the young and rural voters across the state. 

North Carolina is home to over half a million rural students — the second most in the nation, only to Texas. Parts of almost 80 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are rural. Here at UNC, over 4,000 Tar Heels come from a rural background, and that number only grows. Rural areas, and rural youth, show remarkable promise. But, they are often neglected by the very platforms that claim to champion them. 

If you’ve ever felt that progressivism tends to come at the cost and insult to rural places, you’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt left behind, you’re certainly not. 

Clayton, in her speech to the NCDP's executive committee, said, “I want to be the person that can speak for the folks in this party that have felt left behind, that have felt silenced."

Only time will tell if she will be able to.

Growing up in the impoverished, disadvantaged and rurality of this state creates this churning concoction of shame, resentment and apathy within you, all surmounted by a desire to love where you’re from — above all else, it seems. 

Clayton means to surmount that apathy. In an interview with WUNC, Clayton said the goal of her campaign was “to make sure that people understood rural young folks have a place and can do amazing things when they really get involved in their own backyard.”

Now, when a politician talks in terms of “rural” and “urban” it’s to sow division and affirm a false dichotomy between the two. In North Carolina, it is all too easy to split the state between “urban” and “rural.” To wield the phrases to divide across race, class and ideological lines. It begets the worst in us, it divides us against one another. The connotations of “urban” and “rural” are loaded with misinformation, malice and downright bigotry. 

Clayton seems to have a different perspective on “rural” North Carolina — a truer perspective. That “rural” is altogether more complex than many take the time to understand. Rural North Carolina is more diverse than assumed, and perhaps more progressive than ever expected. Beyond all else, rural North Carolina believes itself to deserve better from its government, and it does. 

A vein of progressivism pumps through the rural south. We’ve seen it here in Warren County, on Blair Mountain in West Virginia, or at the Highlander Center of Tennessee’s hills. There are even revolutionary, populist tendencies, thrown against the backdrop of dilapidated infrastructure, closing hospitals and underfunded schools. There is resentment built up like layers of rust on unfulfilled promises. 

And yet, the NCDP still puts up candidates who repeat whatever soulless, buffed-to-a-shine drivel is written by ChatGPT in a cubicle. “Tough on crime” puppet candidates dance desperately trying to convince the folks across the aisle that they're "A Real Boy", rather than convincing the constituents they really care. Candidates lack the passion, the personality and most of all the connection to North Carolina that excites voters. 

Those plays are tired. The opponent knows it coming, and the fans don’t even want to watch. If the playbook ain’t working, throw it out. 

Luckily, there’s a new coach. The promise of Clayton as chairperson is a party more responsive to the true will of North Carolina.

There is unharnessed power here in the rural South. If the Democratic Party could only ditch the establishment stuffiness to harness it.

The NCDP under Clayton should be one of unification, not division. The party line shouldn’t run between the “rural” and the “urban,” it should run for all North Carolinians. The party should depend on true grassroots campaigns, grown in rich North Carolinian soil, rather than fill-in-the-blank campaign templates from Washington consultants.

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And maybe, just maybe, Democratic candidates that don't tell on their own misunderstanding of the state with their poorly manufactured opinions on barbecue.