Although North Carolina is deemed a “blue” state due to long time local Democratic rule at the local level, the success of President Obama and to a lesser extent, the success of Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) at the national level are exceptions to the normal conservative voting patterns for those level offices. There are several cultural dynamics of North Carolina that will may appear during the presidential election in 2012. These dynamics have contributed to its place as one of the major swing states for the upcoming election. North Carolina politics have shifted due to the influx of new residents and the changing social dynamics of minority voters, but the state’s traditionalist culture will assure the state votes conservatively despite its Democratic votes during the 2008 presidential election. North Carolina’s political climate is based on a long history that is often overlooked in lieu of recent 2008 polling and election statistics. The 2008 election was an exception to North Carolina state political voting patterns. North Carolina will return to its conservative-traditionalist roots in the 2012 election.
Political History of North Carolina- Mid 1800-1930’s
The 2008 election reminded the United States that there are some elections where every vote matters. This was especially true during that election as the competition in the parties for a Democratic and Republican candidate to replace President Bush motivated new voters out in record numbers. The combination of an economic downturn, a war-weary public and the lack of trust in the political process had reached a zenith. The rapid change in politics supported by grass roots campaigning and fundraising had seen no equal. In the midst of this, several states became the backdrop for very hard fought campaigns. These “battleground” or “swings states” are named as such because they have the possibility of switching back and forth between the two major political parties based on history or the changing political-social environment.
Several battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia became the focus of the election in 2008. These states reminded U.S. voters and the world that disillusionment with the government can lead to grassroots campaigns that energize voters. In short, there are no guarantees. This reminder resulted in a victory for President Barack Obama and the bewilderment of fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party. The elections in the battleground states were very close in 2008. The 2012 battleground states (Florida, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) have several states in common from the previous elections. But what was it about North Carolina that has made the state not only a key battleground state, but also the Democratic National Party’s (DNC) choice to host the 2012 DNC Convention which will elevate the state into the national political arena? In order to understand the current political climate of North Carolina, one would be grossly remiss if the cultural legacies that influence North Carolina politics were not addressed. This is not the first time that competing politics found a home base in the state of North Carolina:
Long before it became fashionable to talk about America’s political polarization, North Carolina was a boiling political cauldron. Throughout the twentieth century, the state frequently oscillated between its progressive impulses and its broad conservative streak, sometimes swinging back and forth in ugly, violent spasms.”
North Carolina is rich in political history, but the underlying historical events reveal a state that has been constantly changing in many ways, but that has also fought to stay the same. In the South, there was no other state so focused on reforms that it was nicknamed the “Wisconsin of the South”[Footnote] during the 1920s, eluding to both Wisconsin’s and North Carolina’s history of constant reform. So what aspects of North Carolinian culture were the reformers trying to address so aggressively? Suffice it to say, there are several factors that have contributed to North Carolinas position as a key presidential battle ground for 2012, but none more important than the political and cultural history of North Carolina derived from its relationship with race and industry.
Industry Shapes North Carolina’s Society
The North Carolina Department of Commerce lists the following areas as key industries for the state in 2011: manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, defense, automotive, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, green and sustainable energy, financial services, software and information technology as well as textiles.[Footnote] However, North Carolina’s history is firmly rooted in its agrarian roots largely based on tobacco, cotton, textiles and also furniture manufacturing. It is these roots that have shaped the culture of the state and how it approaches politics. An once derogatory term, the state moniker, “tar heels”[Footnote], alludes to the difficult pre-American Revolution industry of producing tar from the swaths of pine trees in the state. The term later evolved to represent the heartiness of the state as it reluctantly joined the Confederate Civil-War troops. North Carolina’s late entry into the Confederacy is yet another instance where North Carolina politics differed from their southern peers, but they showed great resolve after the decision and had one of the highest troop losses in the war.[Footnote] These characteristics, both questionable and commendable, continue to influence North Carolina politics.
Although North Carolina is a southern state, it does not fully share the southern aristocracy of its plantation owning neighbors further south. Rather, North Carolinas were a society that opted for, “corn liquor drunk out of a jug, not mint juleps sipped from elegant silver cups.” During North Carolina’s early years, other aspects of North Carolina suffered from underdevelopment including the road systems, housing and education. North Carolina’s schools were considered the worst in the South and the state had the highest illiteracy rate in the region. North Carolinians had slaves, but the prominence was not as significant as other states and the agriculture practices can be best described as subsistence farming for free blacks and whites. At the approach of the 1900s, the state was considered poor and rural with a population of 1.2 million whites and 624,469 blacks and an unaccounted for, but much smaller number of Native Americas. Forty percent of whites and almost all black farmers did not own their land and were continually in debt to the merchants who leased the land and provided them credit. Only the Mississippi Delta region and the Arkansas Ozarks were considered more rural. North Carolinians were farmers of the most basic means and one-third of whites and two-thirds of blacks were sharecropping common crops such as cotton, tobacco, sweet potatoes, soybeans and peanuts.
North Carolina had more farms in the U.S. than any other state except Texas. In the 1890s, farmers were facing hunger due to the fall of cotton prices. The divide between businessmen, the railroads companies that set shipping rates and Wall Street grew as the farmers believed these businessmen were exploiting them. This unrest crossed racial boundaries quickly in North Carolina because the downturn affected everyone, regardless of race, since most Carolinians were just a few levels above subsistence farming. Of note, in North Carolina during this period, the state held beliefs that were biased against non-whites but there existed more of a complimentary relationship as the “have” and “have not” dynamic was more fractured between farmers and businessmen than blacks and whites. This dual existence continues to be a major component of North Carolinian politics and has flip-flopped periodically.
Industrialization came to North Carolina incrementally in the form of mills in the late 1800s and was mostly centered on cotton textiles, which is why the downturn in cotton prices significantly hurt the farming communities, but also represented a new way of life for farmers. Most of the mill owners were the land owners during the Civil-War. This propagated a new social class and more distinction between the classes in North Carolina which did not exist as strongly until industrialization allowed textile capitalist to distance themselves from rural farmers. Non-black farmers, mainly women and children in the beginning, where the first to migrate from the farms to the mills in search of higher wages. This movement shifted the population from individual farms to what is known as a “mill village”. In a mill village, “housing, food, and religion were available but political conflict was taboo.” The shift to the mill village-mentality is crucial to understanding politics of this time. The divide between the workers and the textile capitalist shifted the political culture of North Carolina in so much that now the workers livelihood was directly tied to their relationship with the mill and its political views. The political views erred largely with pro-business legislation rather than social issues.
Though the 1950’s this concept was at play and extended to Washington D.C. where North Carolina legislators took care of the mills with favorable legislation and in return the business men kept sure there was a constant supply of workers. Political dissension in the mill village was not only deterred by the leadership, but also by the other workers of the mill and family members. The fears of communal reprisals were a reality the mill owners could carry out easily. During an economic downturn, as in the Great Depression, a lost job could mean a family would be on the brink of starvation. Traditionalism also played a role as the evangelical nature of the South, especially rural North Carolina, supported a subservient reverence to community leaders. In this case this distinction was extended to public office holders as well as the business men that controlled the state’s major companies. Traditionalism is directly linked to Baptist and Protestant denominations, especially in North Carolina. Traditionalism has shaped North Carolina’s politics and supported that a, “deferential relationship should exist both between employer and employee…[and] consider labor unions and collective bargaining disruptive of the workplace.” The religious leaders often deprecated union organizers, creating an anti-union culture. This anti-union culture was supported by a workforce that was hesitant to protest against their supervisors and even less likely to ban with organization outside of the state:
In nearly every instance, North Carolina communities were aligned against the labor unions and the strikers. Police force was used to quell the strikes, and toughs were hired by the mill owners and deputized by local authorities. Ministers and newspapers railed against the unions.
Not surprisingly, unions did not fare well. By 1939 only 4.2 percent of non-farmers were unionized, which was the second-lowest percentage in the nation at that time. This legacy continues, and North Carolina is still more likely to elect those with mutually benefiting relationships to banks, mills, tobacco and utilities, “even though North Carolina is among the most blue-collar states in the country.” However, the harsh economic times in the 1890s that affected farmers soon shifted to include those in the textile industry. With this change, the attitude towards unions changed for a very brief moment during this segment of North Carolina history.
The Unions and the Populist Movement
North Carolinian farmers, due to their severe poverty, were eagerly looking for assistance. It was under these conditions that the Farmers’ Alliance began operating in the state. The Farmers’ Alliance was an economic populist group also known as the “People’s Party” comprised of a majority of wheat farmers from the plains states and poor cotton farmers from the South. The party held anti-elitism ideals and focused on cleansing government from business-influenced corruption. The populist sought to change the economic policies of the national Republican Party and most of the policies of the state’s Democratic Party. By 1890 there were more than 2,100 chapters state-wide. For local farmers and mill workers that were hesitant to speak out, participation in a populist group was a major shift in their concept of society at that time. However, the North Carolina establishment, which at that time consisted of the Democratic Party and the businessmen they supported, was not concerned with the Populist movement initially. The state Democratic Party held the lion’s share of political offices and ruled heavily through, “ballot fraud and violence to maintain political power.”[Footnote] This changed when the state Democratic Party did not move to accept any of the political reforms the Populist movement desired which forced the first challenge to the southern political machine in North Carolina. The nationwide Populist movement, in their bid to gain more support, joined with the national and state Republican Party and became what is known as a “fusion” group. The new Populist-Republican movement relied heavily on the black vote in North Carolina in order to gain victory over the Democratic Party because they knew only the numbers from the black-white economically focused voters would have any effect, especially in North Carolina. This alliance would be the Populist and the Republicans most fatal mistake. Their second mistake and one that would arise again 100 years later, was regarding the deliberation over the taxing of business or maintaining the laissez-faire approach. Despite the impeding battles over race and later over taxation of business, the new Populist-Republican movement was able to accomplish many goals:
They passed a wide-ranging election law that limited Democratic fraud and allowed illiterates to participate…; returned home rule, which had been restricted by Democrats, to the counties’ increased funds for public education; limited interest rates…and elected a reform-minded Republican governor. Blacks held eleven seats [out of 172] in the General Assembly, their larges total in more than a decade.
However, the aforementioned mistakes, which resulted in the political fallout over business, industrialization and race, set the tone for modern North Carolina politics and set into motion a significant political transformation. The Populist-Republican movement’s attempt to stop what farmers deemed as excessive taxation on freight shipments resulted in a backlash from the pro-business Democratic Party as well as some of the business minded Republicans who felt those actions were anti-business. Newly elected Populist-Republican Governor, Daniel Russell, was a wealthy, “bigger-than-life” character, “but from the day he took office, Russell was a marked man.” Russell was a member of a slave-owning family, yet he believed blacks should have equal rights and he was a Republican at a time when, “most respectable white men in eastern North Carolina were Democrats” His election in 1896, represented the first Republican governor the state had in twenty years. The Populist movement took hold and Russell was accompanied by a North Carolina Populist-Republican tally of 72 Republicans and 64 Populist collecting all but one of the state’s congressional seats. The Populist movement base, which represented social reform, poor white farmers and also the black community, wanted to limit the power of the elite business owners. Angering many business elites, Russell proposed reforms to counter actions such as the ninety-nine-year lease the Democratic governor had granted J.P. Morgan’s Southern Railway. The Democrats perception of anti-business policy and bubbling racism due to the increase in black political power in the state culminated with the Democrats waging, “a violent white supremacy campaign.”
Race relations in the North Carolina are only a part of the state’s political history, but the systems put in place in North Carolina at this time will help develop an understanding of official and unofficial systems put into action limiting political participation and marginalizing generations of poor white and all black voters. The residue from the hostilities is still felt generations later. It is not a coincidence that this same voter base was disengaged for and also what the very same voter base that was later re-energized to participate in the 2008 presidential election.
The Political Parties Collide
At the time of Governor’s Russell’s election, North Carolina’s black communities were living a life that even their children would not be able to live under formal segregation that developed after Russell’s 1896 election. Segregation still existed, but blacks ate in many restaurants, served on juries and, “nowhere else in the South did African Americans hold as much political power as they did in North Carolina.” Perhaps, because of this and the combination of anti-business policy from the newly elected Populist candidates, the Democratic Party felt pressure to ensure their dominance in the state. Voter participation by blacks in North Carolina in primarily black congressional districts is not just a topic of the 2008-2012 political debates. In the late 1800s, black political zones existed and were represented by black elected leadership as in the case of Congressman George H. White. White moved to a black district specifically to run for office. Black settlement patterns, during this time, were consistent with the locations of former plantations where they would have worked prior to the end of the slavery. Because of this few blacks lived in the western part of the state.
The district knows as the “Black Second” was created by the ruling Democratic Party in order to shepherd the Republicans out of their districts and maintain Democratic rule in the state. This resulted in four black congressmen being sent to Washington, D.C., which was the most of any district in the south. This district had similar success with the election of black state legislators. Again, North Carolina provides another example of its dueling personality. A state that would soon rage one of the most violent political campaigns on the Republican and black community was also the state that had up until that point made the most progress with political assimilation with regards to two parties and equal representation.
Congressman White, consistent with his congressional peers, sought to increase “political patronage appointments”. This patronage, combined with the rise of the fusion-Populist Party, resulted in hundreds of black local office holders including magistrates, constables and justices of the peace. For North Carolinian, especially in Western North Carolina, they, “could assume this was only the beginning of black political influence…[and]the idea of black equality was unthinkable.”
The white supremacy campaign was led by Furnifold Simmons, the “great chieftain of white supremacy” and was a major tenant of one of the most infamous periods in North Carolina history, the 1898 Election and the Wilmington Insurrection. Simmons went on to dominate the North Carolina Democratic Party for thirty years as a U.S. senator under what would become the “Simmons Machine”. But leading up to the 1898 election, Simmons and like minded political peers organized groups which were known as “Red Shirts” and “Rough Riders” in order to provoke violence on Populist, Republicans and the minority supporters of those groups, blacks. The Red Shirts first appeared after reconstruction in South Carolina, but after Benjamin Tillman, a congressman from South Carolina, visited the North Carolina, they were a common presence in the state. With their appearance, Ku Klux Klan activities were at an all time high since reconstruction. Simmons raised funds for the campaign from the business community and promised them there would be no tax increases. He went on to say, “Our state is the only community in the world, with a majority of white voters, where the officers to administrater the government are the choice of Negroes, not of whites.” Congressman White, the leading black member of Congress, was often a target as he represented all that was wrong with the state according to the Democratic Party. Governor Russell received constant threats as well. After several bloody attacks throughout the state, the Democrats were able to regain control in 1898 and the disenfranchisement of poor whites and blacks solidified in the state.
This growing sentiment found another spokesman in several local and state leaders including the most celebrated orator in North Carolina, Charles Brantley Aycock, and the, “poster boy for North Carolina schizophrenic politics” although his legacy is that of establishing the education system of the state. The practice of being both a progressive and instating racism may seem contradictory, but in the political climate of the era it was the norm demonstrated in examples at the local level by the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, Josephus Daniels, to the national level with President Woodrow Wilson. Note that Josepus Daniels was a friend of Aycock, a member of the Democratic Party’s inner circle and served as the Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Daniels wrote that, “The News and Observer was relied upon to carry the Democratic message and to be the militant voice of white supremacy, and it did not fail in what was expected, sometimes going to extremes in its partnership.” These men represented the culture they were raised within and choose to perpetuate it through governance and media. Note that Aycock went on to be the state governor and is commonly known as the “Educators Governor” for the growth of the North Carolina education under his tenure. However, he also helped spread white supremacy. His legacy of public education and health initiatives was a tactic to educate whites after the Democratic Party instated education requirements to limit the Republican and Populist major supporters, the poor and non-white. The combination of literacy requirements and poll taxes created by the Democratic Party to limit the Populist movement, alienated both poor whites and black voters in so much that by 1904 only 50 percent voter turnout was recorded compared with 87 percent during the 1896 bi-racial populist coalition elected Governor Russell. The grandfather clause in the new legislation permitted voter rights only if their grandfathers could vote in 1867. This allowed some poor whites to vote but not blacks as they did not have the vote in 1867. The decrease in voter participation shifted from 330,997 registered voters in 1896 to just 6,100 in 1902.
Voting became a luxury of the wealthy, which suited pro-business politicians well. This point is a very key historical fact to reference when considering the 2012 election. The “race card” may be used to describe why many voters in North Carolina voted for President Obama as well as the reason why many did not vote for him. It is helpful to consider race as an outlier, and focus on the general dynamics that follow competing groups. The political power in control will put measures into effect that will maintain their dominance. In this case, it was based on racism and beliefs about the role of business and industry. The tactic the Democratic Party initiated was to first kill or scare voters from participating in elections and secondly to ensure they could not legally participate in elections by state law.
The 1898 Wilmington riot following the successful election of the Populist movement, in what was then the largest and most prosperous city, resulted in over 60 deaths and the forced expulsion of blacks and Populist-Republicans from office and the immediate swearing in of Democratic representatives.
This was the first and only successful Coup D’etat on U.S. soil. It occurred without external or internal interference and the result was the end of the Populist movement and helped ensured that, “black political participation would be a non-issue in North Carolina until after World War II.”[Footnote] Ayock went on to serve as governor as well as four other key supporters of the white supremacy campaign. Participating in government and exercising freedom of speech after such a blatant, state-sponsored attack on duly elected officials would have been very difficult for former Populists and the black community. Following the Wilmington Riot, Republicans did not gain significant political dominance in state level politics. This observation also takes into account that the core beliefs of the major parties have shifted since the 1960s, nonetheless, the state and local legislators in North Carolina have keep the title of Democrat even though the rest of the south shifted to Republicans. Of note, the North Carolina Democrats still maintained their traditionalist beliefs even after the national Democratic Party began to become more progressive
The suffrage amendment, which resulted in the loss of voting rights for one-third of the state, was passed by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin. Even in majority black districts, the amendment passed by a 2,967-to-2 margin due to the Wilmington mayor statement that, “any blacks trying to vote should be killed.”[Footnote] Since the 1898 election, scare tactics had evolved into state and national legislation known as Jim Crow. These laws denied the 15th Amendment to many North Carolinian voters as well as limited the political offices to the Democratic inner circle. The Democrats won nearly every state office in the state after the violence in Wilmington:
It was a pattern repeated throughout the twentieth century-business money put into the hands of political operatives who used race to keep the farmers and textile workers from supporting Populist movements. The campaign of 1898 was not just a war of white supremacy; it was also the triumphs of industrial interests over the farmers.
Consistent with the social moors of the time, women were largely ignored in politics, but didn’t face the violence racial politics involved. Furnifold Simmons, elected in 1901to U.S. senator, continued his campaign for political change and again began to spread the fear of participation to include that of women. He compared women’s suffrage to socialism. Simmons and like minded political peers believed that if the federal Constitution were amended to allow white women to vote, it could also be amended to allow for the black vote.
Oddly enough, the “Simmons Machine” was the catalyst for the breakdown of the southern Democratic Party in North Carolina. In 1920, North Carolina had the smallest foreign born population nationally. The National percent was at 13 and North Carolina’s was at 0.3 percent. Due to his intolerance for European immigrants, Catholics and non-segregationist, he resurrected his white supremacy campaign against Democratic candidate and New York governor, Al Smith. Despite the leanings of the younger and new Democratic leadership in the state led by up-and-coming power players like Max Gardner, soon to be Governor Gardner, Simmons pushed for and accomplished winning the state for Republican Herbert Hoover over the Democrat Al Smith to the chagrin of his Democratic peers.
The election of President Hoover was, “the only time between 1872 and 1968 North Carolina voted for a Republican president. Simmons, at 74, was the oldest Senator at the time, was ailing in health and increasingly alienated due to his support for the Republican President Hoover. Due to a change in the national political scene, Republicans had taken control in Washington D.C. and Simmons had lost his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee and therefore some influence. The memory of his white supremacy accomplishments were fading fast as his peers passed away or took a more politically correct stance which further distanced him from “new guard” in the Democratic Party. His support of the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover was seen as unforgivable for some and President’s Hoover invitation of a black congressman’s wife to a White House Tea soon after his election was the final blow to the segregationist that supported the “Simmons Machine”.
The change in politics was the end for Simmons as well as for the old southern Democrat regime. North Carolina had stayed consistent with its place in history as a state full of contradictions. The states fear of Al Smith’s religion, non-segregationist and anti-prohibition politics had inadvertently help shepherd in a level of racial equality the state thought was unforgivable. The North Carolina Democratic inner circle began to dismantle “Simmons Machine”. For the first time in 20 years, Simmons lost the ability to control the state government through secret ballots, having prior approval of all North Carolina office seekers and the ability to rig elections.
North Carolina had become too good at growing cotton and tobacco and prices fell. The combination of the introduction of a more popular material called rayon, foreign competition, and reliance on rudimentary farm techniques further exacerbated the financial downturn. Then prior to the Great Depression on October 29th, 1929, the markets crashed on what would come to be known as “Black Tuesday”. When the markets fell causing the textile industry to crumble, Hoover was blamed and therefore Simmons was also blamed. Simmons attempted to bounce back as a Democratic purist who sought to uphold the values of the state including prohibition. But the primary voters supporting prohibition were the very women Simmons had so energetically fought to the right to vote. Simmons lost his next election and much of legacy died with him as North Carolina attempted to urbanize shift its demographics and politics.
Mid-Century to Present Day: Who Runs North Carolina?
Other political mavericks continued to build upon the Democratic gains including Governor O. Max Gardner and his 20-year “Shelby Dynasty (1928-1948)”[Footnote] which followed that of the 30-year “Simmons Machine” led by Furnifold Simmons. Like Charles Ayock and Furnifold Simmons, Gardner transformed the education system within the state. Gardner was known as the “Father of the North Carolina School System. Even Gardner, the beloved 19-year president of the University of North Carolina could not overcome race or economic reform issues which resulted in his defeat in the 1950 Senate race against Willis Smith. This was largely based on Gardner’s anti-segregation beliefs. Race and the role of business, continues to play a major role in politics whether the individual was pushing for marginalization or he was the victim of it, as in the case of Max Gardner and Daniel Russell.
North Carolina had begun to change in many ways on the surface. When compared to the other southern states, North Carolina’s newspapers had begun to shift from being the mouth piece of the white supremacy campaign to being, “judged the most liberal in the South.”
To understand the political dynamics modern North Carolina, one has to take into account that the, “political scene has changed substantially since World War II, primarily with respect to the major roles that Republicans and blacks play now compared with a half-century ago.” It took the national Civil Rights movements in the 1960s for the state to reluctantly delegate political power to minorities. The push and pull over race relations and industry remain major components of North Carolina politics.
North Carolina is a state where the, “political debate remains firmly controlled by two well-institutionalized economic elites with somewhat conflicting interest.” These two groups, manifest themselves throughout the political spectrum, but are best classified as the “modernizers” and the “traditionalists”. These terms are the modern political debate topics. For the most part, race relations and anti-union rhetoric are more muted. The modernizers are derived from the bankers, developers, merchants, news media and sectors of the community seeking to gain revenue from the expansion of business. The traditionalists are derived from the industrialist working in textiles, furniture, and clothing. This group also includes the agrarian sectors and meat production. Not unlike other states, these groups seek association with political candidates that advocate for their interests. [Footnote] Another example that illustrates the paradox of the mutual existence of the “modernizers” and the “traditionalist” is the fact that the state was able to modernize, but also took a step back when it came to social issues. From the early 1900s forward, there was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, a rise in religious fundamentalism and the teaching of evolution. However, there was also a surge in business expansion resulting in new roads, colleges, and a transition from farming to one of the key manufacturers of furniture, cigarettes and banking. North Carolina had become the envy of the south thanks to having one of the biggest banks in the region, Wachovia. The state also had roads systems that Italy, Japan and Australia sought to copy and a economy second only to Texas in the South. The changed resulted in, “manufacturing replacing farming as the state’s chief source of wealth.”[Footnote] The U.S. embraced smoking and North Carolina brands such as Camel, Chesterfields, and Lucky Stripes ensured a steady supply.
Some of the well known political figures in post-modern North Carolina include Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms holds the status of possibly the most controversial politician of the twentieth century from the state. Both Sanford and Hunt served as North Carolina governors and Helms as a long-serving state senator. These politicians’s legacy defined North Carolina, especially that of Senator Helms. With that said, the idea that North Carolina is best represented by the political culture that kept Senator Jesse Helms in office for five consecutive terms is not altogether a true reflection of the state as, “Helms’s strong traditionalist ideology has not been shared by most Tar Heels.” But Helms election, and more importantly, re-election underlies the fact that he did indeed have a strong support system among white voters. Under Helms the pro-Jim Crow segregation and anti-unionism that existed under the old Democratic Party found fertile ground in Helm’s Republican Party in so much that, “his staunch anti-unionism was adopted by the state Republican Party and remains a strong component of the ideology of many Democratic politicians as well. The, “white voters agreed with at least some of his anti-change, traditionalist thinking…they agreed with him about the “moral decay” of American Society…”
But long before. Helms, North Carolina has been thought of as a progressive state, especially among its Southern peers. Although much of the political beliefs of the long standing Democratic Parties rule of the South were maintained in North Carolina regarding many social issues like race relations, there were many areas where the state showed significant progressive ideals like child labor laws and education:
In marked contrast to virtually all other southern states, North Carolina by the late 1930s had established a centralized state government that provided the basic infrastructure for the economic development (highway construction and a statewide investment in public schools and university education, especially at the Chapel Hill campus).
Later, progressive leaders like Sanford and Hunt contributed greatly to the development of public education, civil rights and technology and infrastructure growth. To say that these and other social programs were targets of the traditionalist is misleading just as describing the two governors as anti-business based on their strong support for social issues is misleading. Just as in the late 1890s with the Populist-Republican movement, both men faced the reality of the political climate:
The reality is that both Sanford and Hunt in their own times made conscious political choices that were strong responses to the unwillingness of North Carolina’s big businesses to pay more taxes and, in Hunt’s case, to the cultural traditionalism of many of the state’s voters, especially rural and small-town white males.
The political dynamics of Sanford, Hunt and Helms help provide examples of a very complicated system of balancing business and traditional ideals. “Cornbread populism” is the idea that describes how Helms the senator and conservative traditionalist, and Hunt, the governor and business and education progressive, could both exist in the same political cycle. It also attempts to explain how North Carolina can maintain fundamentalist churches that shun evolution and the some of the top university in the South. Lastly, the term highlights how North Carolina can both fight to protect rural farmers and industrialist in aging trades and also be one of the research and technology centers of the Unites States. Post modern North Carolina had pushed social issues much further than what could have been imagined under Governor Aycock, Governor Gardner’s or Congressman’s White terms. The era of Civil Rights brought along the same social issues that were prevalent in the South at the time.
In another example that confirms North Carolina’s place as a political trend-setter in February of 1960, North Carolina was the stage of one of the most well know sit-ins protesting segregation. Four black college students met for lunch at the counter of the Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina and were refused service. There passive resistance and choice to remain seated sparked off a youth-led movement against segregation and six months later led to the desegregation of that Woolworth lunch counter and sparked a greater moment on the South. A section of the lunch counter is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Race, although a prominent issue ebbed and flowed through this era but by the 1990s race relations had softened based primarily in the need of the North Carolina Democratic Party reliance on the black vote to slow the growth of the Republican Party in the state. Due to this and redistricting in 1991, Mel Wat and Eva Clayton were the first non-white U.S. Congress members elected to represent a North Carolina district since 1901. In a state with several homogenous districts and 22-25 percent of the population of color, it is hard to argue that the legacy of the 1890s had not influenced politics for over 100 years.
The largest change in demographics was the growth of the Hispanic population that according to 1994 Census data has become the third largest racial racial/ethnic group. However the Hispanic school enrollment suggested the Census figures were underestimated. The farm owner’s dependence on immigrant workers during the 1970s to cultivate tobacco and other vegetables as well as manual labor jobs in manufacturing and construction led to a large migration into North Carolina. In many areas the Latino migration pushed into socially or economically stressed communities causing more conflict.
These factors further exacerbated the Democratic Party as well as the fluctuations in manufacturing, the influx of non-traditional Democratic voters into North Carolina. The last blow to the old guard was the realignment of the Democratic and Republican Parties. In short the older Democratic voters where shifting from the ideals of the new members in the Democratic Party. As the Republican Party developed their platform to be more socially conservative, many voters realigned with the Republican Party for national elections. North Carolina, compared with the rest of the South, was the least affected by the shift in the Democratic Party because the state consistently voted for Democrats at the local level. The voters chose more conservative Democrats, but Republicans did increase their influence in the state due to changing opinions over social issues:
The Democratic Party’s abandonment of white supremacy helped trigger the shift-along with race related issues such a racial quotas, welfare, and busing…North Carolina was growing more affluent, and more people identified with the Republican Party based on economic class…and were for the first time feeling the bite of substantial taxes.
The Republican’s Party’s call for smaller government spoke to the self-sufficient mind set of a previously agricultural society just as support for large Department of Defense (DoD) expenditures resonate with a pro-military state. Likewise, the Grand Old Party (GOP) called for school prayer, anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation found a solid audience in the protestant areas of the South. Lastly, the growth of Republican-minded individuals from the Northeast and Midwest further socialized the state to Republicans. The state was convinced and elected moderate Republican governors which resulted in a landslide victory in 1972 that launched the career of Jesse Helms. The GOP went on to control 50 out of 170 seats in the North Carolina General Assembly and most importantly the period issued in the first Republican state leadership since Daniel Russell in the 1890s. This was a significant shift for North Carolina based on the violent history of the two parties and resulted in heated infighting within the party as the conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican Party fought to be the representative of Southern conservatism. In the 1980s, the GOP had won two governor’s races and five of the last 6 U.S. Senate races.
In another example of North Carolinian political paradoxes, the state has demonstrated that it is willing to switch party affiliation if the ideology and the spokesperson fits the state. The face of North Carolina politics was no other than the Republican Jesse Helms and the traditionalist and pro-business values were important to the constituents, but it would not be a long lasting relationship. The Red Shirt-fueled Democratic Party was not willing to relinquish the legislature after such a long history of fighting for control. After increased Republican wins in the state’s General Assembly, non-violent, but similar tactics used against Republican Governor Daniel Russell in 1898, were seen again used against Republican Governor Martin after his 1984, 1988 elections. He retired in 1992 stating, “Were you convinced that I was necessary to drive the stake through my heart so that I would never terrorize your beloved Democrat Party again?.” The Democratic Party used less divisive measures expertly by building coalitions with educators, the black community and business.
The new state Democratic Party attempted to avoid cultural issues and make a distinction between themselves and the national Democratic ticket. This post-civil rights and moderate Democratic era was led by Jim Hunt, who later served one of the state’s most influential Governors. He wasn’t a reformer, but he used the legacy of the establishment to push forth his legislation directives, push out state level Republicans and increase education and economic growth:
Like traditionalism, modernizer ideology has been shaped by educated and affluent white males. Yet, unlike traditionalism, modernism does not reject demands from blacks, women or unions out of hand.
Hunt was not successful in his bid to take Senator Helms Senate seat. The Helms-Hunt race was one of the most intense campaigns in state history, Although Hunt was a popular governor, he was not able to convince the state to shift from their support of Helm’s conservative views. However, Hunt’s dynasty helped provide an example of balancing traditionalist and modernist in North Carolina and was emulated later by Democratic U.S. Senator John Edwards and Governor Mike Easley. This model was also replicated on the Republican side with Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, neither of whom mention race but included the minority vote in the overall political strategy. Sending fiscally and socially conservative Republicans to D.C. was consistent with North Carolina new strategy as well as keeping Democratic within the state to run daily business. The upset of Elizabeth Dole by Democrat Kay Hagan was a due to the influence of the President Obama and a backlash against President Bush, rather than that of a decrease in conservative politics in general:
The implications of social traditionalism for North Carolina politics are many. First, for either traditionalist elites or their mass followers, egalitarian social movements promoted by blacks, women, gays, or labor organization are anathema because they challenge the established order. Second, a political candidate who runs against specific manifestations of these movements-such as the Equal Rights Amendment (1970s), the paid holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1980s), or gay rights (1990s)-can be assured of a certain core support. Third, the strength of rationalist deference among working-class-whites in North Carolina makes the campaigns of either populist politicians or union organizers more difficult, because a certain percentage of the white population does not believe in challenging any authority…North Carolina traditionalist have promoted an antichange ideology in both economic and social policy.[Footnote]
So how is it that the anti-change state, was won over by the President representing change?
2008 and 2012: The Tar Heel Dilemma
As mention, the dynamics of the state changed greatly since the early 1900s and when the Democratic establishment was faced with Republicans at both the state and national level or to begin coordinating with minorities, the Democratic Party chose to survive by adapting. Additionally, North Carolina had transformed from a state of cotton and tobacco growers to the center of one of the premier high-tech centers in the country due to the establishment of the Research Triangle Park. The banking industry had exploded and taken Charlotte into competition with major U.S. cities. The states traditional industries had crumbled and, “more people worked at computer giant IBM’s facility…than grew tobacco in North Carolina.” However this growth was not across the entire state and North Carolina consists of two economic realities. Racial issues now usually involved the state’s Latinos more than blacks and the new transplants are more likely to be liberal Republicans or Democrats than the social conservatives that would support a North Carolina traditionalist ideology.
The growth of the Republican Party in the South after the 1960s did not extend to state level politics in North Carolina, however the growth is reflected in Senate races as the majority are won by Republicans unless there is a strong Democratic presidential candidate as in the case of 2008 with President Obama and Senator Kay Hagan. North Carolina has voted Republican in the last 11 presidential elections with the exemption of 1976 with Jimmy Carter, a southern Democrat and the 2008 election with President Obama did not vote Republican.
Because of the state’s history, it is likely that North Carolina will revert back to Republican Senate rule as well as vote Republican in the national election. The long withstanding conservative beliefs are a key component of the North Carolina vote and just as crucial the underlying racial and pro-business tones will be major consideration for constituents. With decreasing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, severe economic woes and the inability to pass legislation through Congress due to polarization, President Obama will not be seen as an asset to the state by independents that may have supported him previously. North Carolina historical patterns indicate the traditionalist did not support him in 2008 and will not support him in 2012. This leaves the disengaged, the remainder of the independent voters and the Democratic Party vote available. Manipulating voter registration and turn-out have been a key element to the success of the North Carolina establishment since reconstruction as illustrated several times in the political history of the state outlined in this paper. These tactics can be expected again as the traditionalist of the states will have had several years to prepare and the GOP is now in control of the redistricting process.
The North Carolina General Assembly, led by Republicans, will be in charge of re-drawing the districts of the states. The district layout kept the pro-business political wing, the old guard Democrats, in charge for over a century in the past. How long will the effect of the new redistricting last? The current redistricting plans target Democratic Reps. Heath Schuler, Mike McIntyre, Brad Miller and Larry Kissell. These representatives are in districts that were re-drawn to their disadvantage. If these representatives lose their seats, the current representation in the House of 7-6 Democratic could become a 10-3 Republican one. In short, the GOP took advantage of the opportunity to return the favor dealt to them by the Republicans in the past and they drew the lines to push Democratic voters into noncompetitive areas while making vulnerable areas more GOP-leaning. In response, Democrats sued in November of 2011, stating that the approved redistricting were illegal and needlessly separate districts and segregate black voters. However Republicans cite the areas were approved by the Justice Department. At least five districts are at risk from a GOP takeover with the new district proposals:
A breakdown of results from the 2008 presidential race by the North Carolina Free Enterprise Fund shows that Miller’s district would move from going 40 percent for GOP nominee John McCain to a district that would have gone 56 percent for McCain. That remarkable shift comes by simply cutting off Miller’s Democratic territory in the Greensboro area. Similarly small changes make Rep. Kissell’s district go from one that went 47 percent for McCain to one that would go 55 percent; Rep. McIntyre’s goes from 52 percent to 55 percent; and Rep. Shuler’s goes from 52 percent to 58 percent.
The motivation gained from the Republican wins in national elections will motivate state GOP representatives even more. There may be a new king when it comes to gerrymandering this cycle, and it’s the North Carolina Republican party. North Carolina GOP legislators aim to stop traditional Democratic rule in several districts and gain more seats for the Republican Party.
Unless there have been significant political shifts, the shift to a Republican majority may mirror events of the past and lead to infighting. North Carolina is a state full of contradictions, but overlooking its conservative, pro-business and at times fundamentalist dynamics will not assure President Obama a win in the state. Although the state has developed considerably it prides itself on its agrarian roots. With this history also comes the political ramification of the “mill village” mentality where the community will gather and support the politics of community leaders regardless of external influences. This will limit Obama’s ability to reach many North Carolinians outside of the urban and financial centers and the high occurrence of undocumented Latinos will further chip away at a possible source of support.
The Obama campaign was successful in motivating segments of the minority population that had opted out of the political process due to a history of violence and marginalization. Obama’s campaign notes that the very groups that resulted in his victory, youth, blacks and Latinos are the very groups the campaign will need again. These groups are the cornerstone of a victory in North Carolina. The Obama campaign is well aware that they need to engage these populations and First Lady, Michelle Obama, initiated a campaign to rally female voters on November of 2011 highlighting the Obama national campaign strategy of, “enlisting female voters to serve as campaign surrogates at dozens of house parties and phone banks across the nation.”
The influx of new residents, mostly from northern states, allowed Obama to receive votes that were not influenced by southern generational voting patterns and social mores. These new voters were part of the business and technical boom of Eastern North Carolina and were largely independents and Obama was able to secure their vote. The military component is considerable, but because many vote in their home states and thus it is difficult to ascertain the impact of military voters. Suffice to say, military members generally are conservative and vote based on the political parties approach to Department of Defense issues and/or with their own beliefs and concern about their family. North Carolina has fourth-largest number of active-duty military personnel in the U.S. representing each of the four military branches. Reserve and National Guard troops increase the overall number with North Carolina ranking fifth in military retirees and ninth among states with veterans. For the conservative elements of the Armed Forces, the removal of Saddam Hussein, Omar Qadaffi, the drawn down in Iraq under Obama, will do little to change their historically conservative voting patterns.
Another key demographic for Obama is that of the youth vote. In 2008, sixty-six percent of voters under thirty supported Obama, making that his best age demographic. Although this age group has the most unreliable voting patterns, this set of voters are the most ethnically and culturally diverse and more liberal on social issues. The Obama campaign sees these populations that make up his largest base of support as a key target for the “Operation Vote” campaign. Motivating these populations to vote is a major facet of the campaign in order to balance losses from whites and independent voters since the 2008 campaign. The 2010 election cycle, “saw whites vote for Republicans in record numbers in the 2010 congressional elections–the cushion of additional black, Latino, and other minority voters will be crucial.” If state GOP officials succeed in passing strict voter registration requirements, the Obama campaign base will further degrade. The 2010 election resulted in the first Republican rule of the state House and Senate branches since 1870 in North Carolina. This represents a massive change in the political environment. North Carolina House Republican Leader Paul Stam stated that, “voters chose Republicans because they were tired of left-leaning policies coming out of Washington and Raleigh, when only a small percentage of voters actually consider themselves liberal.” If North Carolina is an indicator of future performances in national elections, then Republicans will make considerably gains in the 2012 elections.
The 2012 election’s main battle will be over which party can get their voters to vote and which party can successfully convince the other party to sit the election out. The Republican Party, with added energy from the Tea Party movement, is active and alert compared to 2008. Based on comments from the Republican National Committee (RNC), the RNC has already begun fundraising earlier and they have a base that is steadfast in their goal to remove the current president.
On the other hand, the President will have to focus his message on an audience that has grown skeptical of government due to the economy, and government shutdowns. The President has to convince multiple segments of the population that normally abstain from politics that they, yet again, need to make the effort. The crafting of that message and the sheer energy it will take to motivate the segments of the Democratic base Obama needs for re-election will be difficult. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they are inadvertently highlighting their own issues through their candidate’s difficulty carrying out political debates. The candidates themselves beg one to question what the strategy of the Republican Party is. Additional criticisms of the GOP campaign include: Newt Gingrich’s irreverent reputation, Governor Perry’s memory lapses, Rep. Bachman’s politics include her husband’s questionable “healing of gays” and the plethora of alleged sex scandals that resulted in the resignation of the former front runner, Herman Cain. The GOP candidates, in addition to negative media criticism, suffer from a lack of enthusiasm from their own party. GOP candidates John Huntsman and Mitt Romney have less notoriety, but they still are not able to energize the party. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are continuously overlooked by the media and the GOP as a whole.
President Obama’s election still maintains the ability to court the minority, youth, women and independent vote. His campaign has appropriately picked North Carolina to host the DNC convention and will be able to benefit from the state’s long history of grassroots efforts ranging from the original Populist Party movement to the start of Civil Rights to the upset during the election that resulted in President Obama’s win in the state in 2008. However, The Democratic Party will struggle in North Carolina due to the realignment of the parties and formal shift to the Republican Party at the local level. Likewise, it will be very difficult to stop the gerrymandering process which will limit the minority and Democratic voting districts. Most importantly, history is on the side of the conservatives and traditionalist of the state. The Democratic win in 2008, especially by President Obama, has been a sore point for many business minded conservatives in the state especially with an unemployment rate at 10.4 percent.
The election is almost a year out and many events can occur that can influence the events of either campaign. However, North Carolina’s 15 Electoral College votes may go to the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential campaign. Based on North Carolina’s history, the state will vote Republican in the 2012 election even after a commendable effort from the National Democratic Party to energize target audiences. The culture of North Carolina and some of the underlying motivations of the state will result in a loss for President Obama regardless of which Republican candidate wins the nomination. In the case of North Carolina, the Republican candidate of choice is Newt Gingrich. However, it is uncertain if the state can over look their fundamentalist background and vote for Mitt Romney. His Mormon religion may not be able to overcome the anti-Obama and anti-Democrat sentiment.
The 2008 election was won by a very narrow margin of 13,692 votes (49.9% to 49.5%) in spite of unprecedented participation by formally disengaged voters, backlash against President Bush’s two terms in office, an unpopular war and an economic downturn. The election will be close, and both the traditionalist and the modernist have a long memory of their past success in the state. North Carolina’s ties with its past are much stronger than its desire for a modernist takeover of the state.
©2011, Sprinkles Daughter, all rights reserved
http://www.whqr.org/post/nc-dems-apologize-role-1898-riot ‘riot claimed the lives of 60 Black residents, caused thousands of others to flee, and began the era of Jim Crow in North Carolina.’
http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/1898/sources/tothevoters.html ‘artical ran front page leading up to the election in State newspaper.’
http://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/184/entry ‘Max Gardner only served until 1933, but his political organization controlled the governor’s office for two decades.’