Making Sense of North Carolina’s Political Mess

greetings from north carolina

As the late, great Larry Goodwyn might say, it all goes back to Populism.  The roots of today’s right-wing putsch in the Old North State, which has seen resurgent Republicans in the General Assembly and Governor’s Mansion push an extreme agenda against the poor, minorities, education, the environment, voting rights and reproductive freedom, stretches back over a century, long before the rise of Barack Obama or the Tea Party.

It has been hard for many observers to square the state’s recent sharp turn to the right with its reputation as among the most moderate and even progressive of Southern states.  The long, ugly career of Jesse Helms notwithstanding, North Carolina could boast of its impressive universities, high-tech Research Triangle Park, and generally non-militant response to school desegregation as evidence that the state was reasonably liberal.

Luebke: progressive populist in a conservative land

Paul Luebke, a sociologist at UNCG and long-serving state legislator, has both the scholarly insight and practical experience to put North Carolina’s political whiplash in context.  He argues in his book Tar Heel Politics 2000 that the state has been torn for over a century between two camps—traditionalists and modernizers—in large part because a third option, economic populism, was decisively quashed by elite repression and racist demagoguery around the turn of the twentieth century.  In the 1890s, an insurgent movement of farmers, both black and white, challenged the authority of the propertied elite, which had more or less consolidated control of the South in the hands of the (white) Democratic Party after the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s.  The possibility of a biracial, populist politics that questioned the prerogatives of big business ultimately provoked a vicious counterreaction of bigotry and intimidation—including the only known coup d’etat of a duly elected government in United States history, when the biracial city government of Wilmington was overthrown in the “race riot” of 1898.

Daily Record burnt in Wilmington Race Riot
White supremacy is burning down the house (Wilmington, NC, 1898)

As soon as white elite power was restored, the Democratic Party set about disenfranchising nearly all black voters and many poor whites, depressing political involvement and narrowing the parameters of discourse in the state for at least the first half of the twentieth century.

In the wake of Populist defeat, the dominant Democrats built a new kind of “progressivism” on the twin pillars of racist segregation and state-led economic development.  Democratic governors and legislators pledged their support for better schools and better roads—so long as the Jim Crow status quo was maintained. Thus was born the schism that defines Luebke’s analysis of NC politics: a conflict between so-called traditionalists, based in the smaller towns of North Carolina’s eastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain as well as the underdeveloped mountain west, and modernizers, whose greatest strength lay in the “metro Piedmont” of the I-85 corridor: Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh.  Traditionalists tend to favor low taxes, continuity, and the maintenance of the hierarchical culture of the small town world, with its mill owners over millhands (hence deep antipathy to obstreperous unions); whites over blacks (Jim Crow); husbands and fathers over women (opposition to the ERA); and so on.

Modernizers, in contrast, are not really liberals in the sense of being on the left. They are, rather, forward-looking businesspeople with ties to sectors like real estate, construction, and finance, industries that don’t mind upsetting the old ways in order to promote progress and growth.  They also don’t mind raising taxes to support education and infrastructure, so long as the taxes are regressive and fall on the poor and working people and not the upper class or business.

The modernizers in North Carolina history have arguably held the greatest influence, from Gov. Charles Aycock’s avowedly segregationist regime that promoted education as a panacea for populist demands of better public services to Govs. Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt’s mildly liberal, probusiness pragmatism in the 1960s and 1970s.  In Luebke’s view, modernizer ideology can hardly be described as liberal, since it favors the interests of particular business groups (the expansive, higher-wage sectors like real estate and finance, versus the more traditionalist, low-wage industries like textiles and furniture); denies the legitimacy of the labor movement as a player in state politics; and offers mostly token concessions to the egalitarian demands of women and minorities.

Traditionalist Modernizer Jim Hunt Jim Martin
The two-headed hydra of old-school NC politics

In North Carolina, in other words, there were only two games in town—traditionalist and modernizer—and each party had strains of both tendencies, even if Republicans gradually drifted more and more toward the traditionalist side, due in large part to the influence of Christian conservative grassroots activism in the 1990s.  But from the 1970s to 1990s, both traditionalists and modernists vied for power within the Republican and Democratic parties, and the politicians who excelled the most—such as Govs. Jim Hunt (D, 1977-85, 1993-2001) and Jim Martin (R, 1985-93)—succeeded because they blurred the boundary between small-town, low-wage, socially conservative traditionalists and urban, “progressive,” open-minded modernizers.

Nowhere in this scheme, as Luebke repeatedly argues, was there much room for a genuinely populist, egalitarian, left-leaning point-of-view that does not explicitly favor the interests of a power elite—a disposition best exemplified by the state’s dependence on regressive taxes, as well as its more or less resolute resistance to organized labor.  Despite its vaunted economic growth, North Carolina has routinely boasted the lowest manufacturing wages and lowest rates of unionization in the nation, and Luebke argues that labor’s record of failure in the state has led to the AFL-CIO adopting a mostly low-key, behind-the-scenes role in NC politics, since elites in politics and the press generally view its participation as innately illegitimate.

Reading Tar Heel Politics, 2000, one gets the sense that the Democrats of the old “Solid South” only held on to political power in NC by virtue of inertia.  The civil rights movement and white discomfort with demands for greater equity by African Americans (as well as women and the LGBT community) unleashed centrifugal forces that, in time, would smash the North Carolina Democrats to pieces—an outcome finally realized in today’s full-spectrum dominance of the GOP in Raleigh, particularly since Gov. Pat McCrory took power in 2013.

From the makers of The Prince of Darkness, The Prince of Darkness 2: The Return of the Revenge

However, this process unfolded gradually.  A key moment was 1972, with the election of archsegregationist Jesse Helms as Senator over moderate Democrat Nick Galifianakis, as well as the triumph of James Holshouser as the state’s first Republican Governor since 1896.  Democrats subsequently retained power by massaging the demands of social traditionalists when necessary and mostly pursuing the interests of the state’s business elite, as symbolized the unprecedented four terms of “modernizer-traditionalist” Gov. Jim Hunt.  Regardless, a true two-party system began to take shape, as the Democratic Solid South of yore crumbled under mounting cultural, political, and demographic pressures.  Republicans steadily gained ground during the 1980s and 1990s, deftly portraying Democrats as “tax and spend liberals” (due to modernizers’ willingness to levy taxes, albeit not progressive ones, to support causes like education) even as Democrats did little for their working-class constituents, who became increasingly disillusioned.

Taken together, it appears that the decline of the Democrats was overdetermined.  Given white antipathy toward the advancement of African Americans, particularly in eastern Coastal Plain counties with large black populations; the influx of fiscally conservative, upper-income whites in the finance and high-tech centers of Charlotte and the Research Triangle; and the growing political mobilization of the Christian Right, it seemed only a matter of time until the Democrats’ old alliance of urban modernizers and rural traditionalists would splinter—especially when Republican politicians learned how to deliver the goods for both the business community and socially conservative grassroots supporters.  In such a context, who needs a corporate Democrat who favors regressive taxation as well as noxious moral stands in support of abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action?  The untenability of a Democratic Party founded on the support of African Americans, progressive women, and environmentalists, along with a waning white conservative base, seems all too clear in retrospect.

Thus, the lavishly-funded and well-organized conservative push we saw in NC in 2010 and 2012 clearly stood a good chance of success, and the new regime is pursuing right-wing goals with a gusto not matched since the heyday of white supremacy in the early twentieth century.  If Luebke’s schema is correct, then tensions between modernizers and traditionalists in both parties had previously kept either camp from going too far in either direction—but that dynamic might be obsolete if big money and cultural conservatism have formed a united front against a smaller, urban beachhead of liberal values.

This leaves the question of where the Democratic Party and grassroots liberals will stand—will they pursue the strategy of appeasement to big business and the wealthy, which was more or less the Democrats’ overarching strategy in North Carolina, with few exceptions, through much of the twentieth century?  Or will they embrace a populist, multicultural, urban base that may or may not add up to a majority in the political calculus of the moment?  The weight of history suggests the former, given the stubborn realities of NC politics that Luebke outlined in his 1998 book.  Yet a renewed and energized coalition of African Americans, environmentalists, educators, feminists and organized labor (as exemplified by this year’s Moral Monday movement) may be the only path forward for Democrats.

Demonstration in Raleigh (July 2013)

Indeed, the answer may lie in a more charitable understanding of North Carolina’s politics than Luebke allows.  Even if the administrations of Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt failed to stray far off the modernizer reservation in terms of favoring big business and regressive taxation, there may be a stronger liberal or populist impulse underlying Tar Heel political culture in recent decades—one that made itself only fitfully felt in various progressive programs and initiatives, such as Sanford’s Governor’s School for gifted high schoolers or Jim Martin’s Teaching Fellows program, which paid for the college education of prospective teachers for over a quarter-century (that is, until it was recently axed by the new GOP government).  Influential figures like Frank Porter Graham, Kerr Scott, and Bill Friday did have liberal aspirations that went beyond carrying water for big business.

Rather than look at modernizer efforts to support the arts, education, and economic development by regressive means as a sign of stubborn conservatism, we might look at the programs of Sanford et al as the most progressive policy outcome possible in a political constrained by institutional racism and antitax traditionalism.  More than their Southern neighbors, elite and non-elite Tar Heels alike showed a persistent interest in investing in public goods throughout the twentieth century, even if a probusiness conservatism shaped how such investments were made.  The desire for good public services and an energetic state likely remains among North Carolina voters, particularly in the metro Piedmont (among the fastest-growing and most diverse areas of the state)—and it’s at least imaginable that an adroit political movement could channel those demands once the current right-wing interlude has passed.

That outcome may hinge on the political character of the  Piedmont’s cities, an issue that Luebke left vague in his book.  At one moment, the scientists, engineers, and financial professionals who came from the North  filled the ranks of NC’s surging Republican Party, but at another the voters of the I-85 corridor (Charlotte to Greensboro to Raleigh) looked like the bedrock of liberalism.  Which is/was it?  And which will it be?  Are upper middle class professionals in NC basically Republicans with a socially liberal streak?  Would they be sympathetic to an economic populism that focuses on investing in people and creating opportunities for all?

In any case, the political alliances that supported a mild, modernizing liberalism through much of the twentieth century are essentially defunct, and the social traditionalist/big business coalition behind the GOP seems more resolutely unified than ever.  As we have seen at the national level recently, though, splits between big business Chamber of Commerce types and hardcore, socially conservative Tea Partiers can have damaging effects on the Republican Party.  (The shutdown debacle is just one example; the antics of grassroots looney tunes like Sharron Angle undoubtedly cost the GOP control of the Senate in the last two election cycles.) And the perennial conflict between modernizers and traditionalists could imperil the GOP in North Carolina again, just as it has state Republicans and Democrats in the past.  (Indeed, it’s hard to see how the GOP’s current agenda will sit with professionals in the affluent suburbs of Charlotte or Raleigh, who may favor cuts in taxes and social programs but not a fundamentalist social agenda.)  For the time being, though, one has to wonder what purpose an old-school, pro-business, moderate-conservative Democratic agenda can serve when Republicans have worked out a winning formula for both big business and social traditionalists.

Then again, perhaps the history tells us something different.  If liberals want to win, maybe they just need to find someone named Jim to run for office.