North Carolina, since at least the time Reconstruction, has been shaped by concurrent strains of conservatism and progressivism.
That’s the theme that was ably laid out by News & Observer chief political reporter Rob Christensen in his book The Tar Heel Paradox, published in 2008 on the eve of Barack Obama carrying North Carolina’s electoral votes on his way to becoming the first black president of the United States.
East Carolina University political science professor Tom Eamon delivers an equally gripping account of North Carolina politics in The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory.
Christensen traced the state’s politics from Gov. Charles Aycock, a white supremacist Democrat whose emphasis on education put the state on a trajectory of forward-looking development, to the business-progressive politics of Gov. Jim Hunt, which allowed the Democrats to dominate state politics through the end of the 20th century.
Eamon’s account begins more or less in 1948, with the election of populist Gov. Kerr Scott, and takes the story forward through the GOP triumph of 2010, when conservative Republicans won supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly and dragged an ostensibly moderate Republican governor along with them in enacting a hard-right agenda.
Eamon’s big theme is that the period bookended by Scott and McCrory marked a transition from a society based on white supremacy to what he delicately calls “one more closely resembling a participatory democracy.”
Summarizing his case, Eamon writes, “Well into the era of cars, planes and television and air conditioning, almost total segregation permeated North Carolina society. By 2010, blacks and whites patronized the same restaurants and theaters. Interracial dating was not unusual. In 2008, African Americans voted at higher rates than did whites in many locales. Taking the long view, it was a different world.”
To quote the title of the epilogue of The Making of a Southern Democracy, it’s been a “perilous climb.” But even that summary, which omits analysis of poverty, incarceration, employment and health outcomes, seems somewhat simplistic. That criticism is not meant to diminish the achievement of this book, which impressively tracks gubernatorial, US Senate, congressional and state legislative elections year to year.
The Making of a Southern Democracy covers the emergence of the rise of a two-party system in North Carolina, and the schisms within the Republican Party. The rise of Jesse Helms, a leader of the conservative movement who achieved national prominence, dovetailed with the state’s election of two moderate Republican governors, Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, whose administrations were closely aligned with the business-progressive agendas of their Democratic counterparts.
Helms’ first election to US Senate took place in 1972, the same year that Jim Hunt, a young, rising star of the Democratic Party was elected lieutenant governor. Like Helms, one of the towering figures in North Carolina politics in the second half of the 20th century, Hunt broadened the base of the Democratic Party, keeping conservatives in the fold with an emphasis on law and order, while undertaking investments in infrastructure and education that appealed to progressives and opening opportunities for African-Americans in the state’s civil service. Like his contemporary, Bill Clinton, Hunt effectively walked the tightrope of bringing African-American voters into the fold while retaining the loyalties of conservative, white constituents while other Southern states were swinging Republican in the political realignment that followed the civil rights movement.
Perhaps the most historic period covered in the book is the immediate past, with Eamon writing, “Not since the 1894-1900 period had North Carolina been so politically volatile as it was from 2008 through 2012.”
One suspects the seemingly contradictory phenomena of North Carolina voters favoring Barack Obama in 2008 and approving the marriage amendment in 2012, while allowing Republicans to consolidate control of state government from 2010 through 2012 will be parsed by historians for decades. Yet a couple things are clear: The long conservative defection from the Democratic Party that began in 1968 has been completed, with the Republican Party now the standard-bearer of conservatism. Likewise, the cities are in the thrall of progressive politics, while the suburbs and rural areas comprise the two constituencies of the new, conservative rule.
Many political observers would disagree with Eamon’s contention that the present moment marks the epitome of a steady march towards “participatory democracy,” which suggests that ordinary and diverse citizens have a strong voice in political affairs with real power to shape the state’s destiny.
It might be too strong a comparison to say that the recent changing of the guard resembles the defeat of the interracial fusion movement 114 years ago when white supremacists seized control of the state and systematically disenfranchised African Americans while knocking the wind out of movement to lift up working people. But there are similar contours, with Republicans packing black and progressive white constituencies into a relatively small number of districts where their political voice will be muted, and passing voter ID legislation that will disproportionately impact minorities, students, the elderly and infirm, while cutting off unemployment benefits and denying the expansion of healthcare.
The present moment also bears the hallmarks of an ever more potent corporate plutocracy, with the role of money intrinsically woven into the political process. Whether the current system in North Carolina is built around a strategy of containing black political power or simply consolidating the control of the wealthy, recent events must beg the question of whether democracy is threatened or impaired.
Whatever quibbles one might have with Eamon’s analysis, it’s fascinating to see how conservative white voters in the coastal plain stuck with the Democratic Party at least halfway into the 1960s partly because of the importance of agricultural subsidies to their livelihoods, and how many of the same people voted for George Wallace in 1968 and then swung over to Richard Nixon four years later. It’s fascinating that urban counties like Guilford that backed Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s have now become bastions of the Democratic Party. It’s fascinating that white Democrats in the coastal plain repeatedly sent Jesse Helms back to the Senate as he developed a potent social conservative politics based on racial resentment and anxiety about growing permissiveness in society.
Looked at year by year, it’s easy to conclude that not much has changed in North Carolina except for party labels and affiliations.