America is a nation in a clash of eras.
One America is straining to burst fully into the 21st century, impatient for change and dreaming of a world where immigrants of any stripe are welcomed, and diversity of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and even gender identity is embraced.
The other is straining to hold on to favored parts of the 20th century, yearning to maintain what’s worked for them for so long: a familiar health care system, law and order, streets clear of immigrants here illegally and marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
The schism underscoring this election is similar to the 1920s, when urban and ethnic America was beginning to overtake rural, white America in size and influence. And like then, the winner of this struggle will determine not just who occupies the White House for four years, but also possibly the course of the still-young century.
“It’s as if we’re living in two different countries,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.
Moving into a new order has never been smooth or easy – or even assured. In 1980, the nation rebelled at many changes and ushered in a conservative era. At the end of the 1920s, the country came together only as a result of the Great Depression. “People had a sense of a shared dilemma,” Dallek said.
It’s so divided into different groups.
Robert Dallek, presidential historian, discussing the state of the nation
As much as anywhere, North Carolina has been at the epicenter of that tension this year. Passionate fights over transgender people in public bathrooms. Police violence and violent protests.
Interviews with roughly 200 voters in North Carolina, as well as in other campaign battleground states in recent weeks, found those and other clashes reinforcing how two blocs see the change through different lenses. Conservatives see the fabric of America crumbling. Millennials see the changes as good, and yearn for more.
Aggravating the stress: North Carolina’s population is growing rapidly but that growth is almost all in urban areas. That’s created economic anxiety in the rural areas, many of which are losing population.
Kenansville, population 855 last year, describes itself as a “peaceful little town rich in history and proud of its heritage.” At Liberty Hall, the ancestral home of the Kenan family, visitors are invited to “tour the main house and share the life of a comfortable Southern plantation family of the 1850s.”
Kenansville’s streets are calm, the people are welcoming and warm, and life seems to proceed at a deliberate, comfortable pace. They’ve survived and prospered, spiritually and economically, on age-old values and principles, and they’re worried that a behemoth, distant government is slowly, surely eroding their very control over their own lives.
“The government doesn’t know what’s going on out here,” said Roland Penny of Beulaville. He was a roofer who said his earnings had been undercut by immigrants working for far less.
He did jobs for 45 years, but increasingly found that cheap labor – he said they were often immigrants who had entered the country illegally – “begin to infiltrate the business.”
He got out. “I saw what was coming,” he said. “I couldn’t compete with that.” Today he’s a pastor at a local Pentecostal Baptist church.
Kenansville, center of Duplin County, is a peaceful little town rich in history and proud of its heritage.
Kenansville’s description of itself
The fears are gentle but deeply felt.
Adrain Arnett, a pastor and Duplin County Republican chairman, sees it in abortion.
“The Lord gave us a soul, and the soul is issued at conception, so it doesn’t matter if it’s one day or 38 weeks or whatever. So I don’t believe we have a right to kill a soul,” he said.
They see it in public bathrooms, recoiling at the notion of sharing a bathroom with a transgender person who may not be biologically of the same sex.
When the Charlotte City Council first acted to protect transgender people, a conservative backlash led the Legislature to pass House Bill 2, removing those protections.
“I don’t want the government telling me, ‘You as a woman have to share a bathroom with someone who may be a man.’ I want to feel secure in my private space,” said Lynne Sheffield, a tour guide at a local winery.
They see it in their guns. People here are tired of government telling them how and when to use guns. Guns, said Dale Garriss, a nurse practitioner, have saved her life.
She recalled a night she was driving to a remote hospital. A truck was on her bumper. They were going fast and, she said, she couldn’t shake him. So she slowed down, reached into her car’s glove box, pulled out a .357 and made sure it was seen. The truck driver then left her alone.
“If we could just hear about all the lives guns have saved, there wouldn’t be such a debate,” she said.
And they see it in health care.
People got care under a system that made sense and usually was affordable or at least logical. Now they see premiums rising again and hear tales of how fewer doctors and insurers could be available. And the 6-year-old Obamacare law is confusing.
“We still don’t understand what it’s done,” said Bill Holliday, a gun shop owner from Mount Olive.
We don’t have all the information.
Bill Holliday, a Mount Olive, N.C., gun shop owner, discussing Obamacare
Go 80 miles up Interstate 40, and millennials at the state’s college campuses chart a very different future.
They dot the pristine landscapes of Wake Technical Community College and North Carolina State University, where people of all races mingle and sit on the lawns studying on their laptops. They feel no threats from the government. And they’re impatient, eager to jolt a creaky nation into a new way of living.
“We just want more choices,” said Deja Brazell, an independent voter from Garner, North Carolina.
Obamacare is popular; it allows people under 26 to remain on their parents’ policies. “Obamacare is a step in the right direction,” said Andrew Morrison, a sophomore at North Carolina State who’s a Democrat.
So are gay rights, and transgender rights.
Young people just didn’t get the fear of transgender people in a bathroom or the rush to legislation.
“There was never a significant issue involving transgenders in bathrooms,” said Alex Hornaday, a freshman and independent voter at N.C. State. “It promotes a distrust and fear of the LGBT community.”
Jacob Trubey said the state bill “solved a problem that didn’t exist, marginalized an already marginalized group in society, tarnished North Carolina’s reputation on a national level and caused millions of dollars to be lost from an economy that desperately needs investments.”
That’s my safety net.
Tessa Loazer, a North Carolina State University senior, explaining how if times get tough she can move in with her parents
They also just don’t get the rejection of immigrants fleeing other countries for economic and political reasons.
“I was taught you’re supposed to love everyone around the world,” said Luke Perrin, a North Carolina State sophomore who’s a Republican. “It bothers me to see this not happening.”
That sense is particularly acute among African-Americans and Hispanics. They’ve come of age at a time when friends whose parents may have entered the country illegally are being stigmatized, even threatened with deportation.
Many also are more ready to challenge police authority and credibility, especially in a new age when smartphones can record police actions against minorities and can spark instant protests and outrage.
Downtown Charlotte erupted with often-violent protests for two nights in September after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American. One person died during the protests and several were injured.
Kevin Jeffers, who is African-American and an independent, recalled walking in his predominantly white Raleigh neighborhood a few years ago when a policeman stopped him.
“He asked where I was going and coming from. He said something had happened in the area,” recalled Jeffers, who had done nothing suspicious. “Why can’t police have more training in dealing with people?”
Jeffers and other millennials retain faith that they can someday, somehow, effect meaningful change. It hasn’t happened yet and won’t happen right away, they said, certainly not in this election.
“A president is supposed to listen to what people need. No one has listened yet,” said Madison Alford, a Wake Tech student who’s an independent voter.
She and others her age are frustrated, thinking America’s not changing quickly enough. Kenansville conservatives are frustrated that everything’s changing too fast and frantically.
The small town and the campuses do share one belief: The political system needs fixing, and they don’t know just what to do.
“People finally get it,” said state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Warsaw, North Carolina. “The old political rhetoric no longer resonates.”