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After a professor’s op-ed went viral, this is what happened next

- January 23, 2017
Opponents of House Bill 2 protest across the street from the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh last April during a rally in support of the law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

On Dec. 23, I published an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer arguing that North Carolina was no longer a “fully functioning democracy.” The gerrymandering of legislative districts had been ruled unconstitutional. The state’s voter identification law had also been ruled unconstitutional because, in the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, it “targeted African-Americans with surgical precision.”

Supporting evidence came from the Electoral Integrity Project US 2016 study, which has surveyed scholars about election quality in the 50 states and countries around the world. This study suggested that on most of the dimensions of election quality, North Carolina performed reasonably. But when it came to voter registration and electoral laws, the state did poorly, and on districting, very poorly. On the specific dimension of election quality, North Carolina wasn’t viewed much differently from Cuba, Indonesia or Sierra Leone.

One consequence: North Carolina state legislative elections are less competitive than in most other states. This arguably detached legislators from public opinion. For example, House Bill 2, the “bathroom law” that required transgender people to use the public restroom matching their biological sex, was supported by 76 percent of State House legislators — even though 58 percent of North Carolinians thought it was damaging the state.

Trends in the reaction

The reaction to my op-ed was rapid and intense. It was the subject of tens of thousands of retweets and shares reaching over 10 million accounts. There were features in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian, Independent, Slate, Huffington Post, Politico, TheHill, Vox and GQ magazine. On Christmas Eve, the op-ed became the lead on the Twitter home page.

I also appeared on Fox News and Democracy Now! There were editorials in the Wall Street Journal and a clutch of North Carolina newspapers.

Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 11, I received 127 emails reacting to the piece — an extraordinary number for your average college professor. The graph below shows the trend.

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As is often true of anything that “goes viral,” the attention was brief. The vast majority of emails and online comments occurred on publication day (Dec. 23), Dec. 29 (after Democracy Now!) and Jan. 2 (Fox News).

Of these emails, 72 were positive, 46 negative and nine neutral. Early on, most were positive, but after the story was picked up by conservative websites the criticism became more pronounced.

Themes in the criticism

Part of this criticism was a reaction to the headline. I wrote that North Carolina could no longer be considered “a fully functioning democracy,” but the headline said “North Carolina can no longer be considered a democracy.”

The Daily Caller wrote: “Professor: North Carolina Is NO LONGER A DEMOCRACY Because Republicans Win Too Many Elections.” It placed quotes around words I had never said. As supporting evidence, it was revealed that “on his Facebook page Reynolds … shows himself in front of an LGBT rainbow flag.” The Daily Caller post led to “Fox & Friends.” As I waited in the green room, the hosts teased the viewers with the Daily Caller’s headline.

Other reactions centered on the word democracy: “America is not a democracy, we are a Republic!” Saying the United States is not a democracy because it is a republic is like saying, “That’s not a dog, it’s a Labrador retriever.” About two-thirds of the world’s full democracies are republics.

The insults

Many other reactions were not about the substance of the argument but simply personal attacks. People wrote to say that I was gay or a predatory cross-dresser abusing women in bathrooms; that I was either a Muslim, a “Muslim sympathizer” or an illegal immigrant; that I was a Communist or a Marxist; and that I was mentally impaired in some way. (Examples of the emails I received are here.)

“Snowflake” came up often in a text search of online comments that my article elicited. It’s an insult lobbed at someone who is allegedly too sensitive. If you object to discrimination, verbal abuse, even assault, you are a “snowflake.” I spent four months in Afghanistan; was in Sanaa, Yemen, when the Houthi rebels invaded; worked with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi; had to outrun the military in Burma to escape deportation; am banned from entering Egypt and Zimbabwe because of my work on designing democratic institutions. But because I raised concerns about the quality of democracy in North Carolina, I am a snowflake.

The takeaway

In the age of sites like the Monkey Cage and others, scholars in political and social science have arguably become more engaged with the broader public. This is an encouraging trend, and my experience highlights the benefits of public engagement. For example, after reading the article, thousands of Americans expressed their frustration with the consequences of partisan redistricting.

At the same time, my experience also highlights the pitfalls of public engagement. One is that the reaction is so short-lived. There may be durable passion on some issues — such as police brutality — but when the issue is the map of state legislative districts, the passion is less lasting. The challenge is to harness the moment before it passes by. My experience also shows the potential pitfall of an evidence-based argument: a stronger opposing reaction that arises because the evidence poses a real threat to the status quo.

Of course, the criticism and abuse directed at me was small compared to what many others experience, particularly women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists. This abuse takes its toll. So it is important to not only encourage scholars to engage publicly but also support them when they do. We should not simply assume or expect that scholars will have a thick skin.

But after the abuse subsides, my experience suggests that engaged scholarship moves the conversation forward. Supporters are armed with the data needed to build a persuasive case. At the very least, a new public conversation can begin. After my article was published, I was asked to speak throughout the state — and not just to the usual allies. I am breaking bread and having real conversations with leading conservatives, as well. Doors open in the most surprising places.

Andrew Reynolds is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find him on Twitter @AndyReynoldsUNC.