Commentary

North Carolina more like Wisconsin than you might think

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 22, 2012 

Last week vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was briefly in the state. On Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will be in North Carolina.

The Wisconsin-North Carolina connection is not an obvious one. But the states are more alike than one might imagine at first blush.

Both are swing states capable of voting Republican or Democratic, of electing a liberal one election and a conservative the next.

I began thinking about the Wisconsin-North Carolina nexus last year when I saw a Gallup Poll that asked residents in each state to rate themselves on a conservative-liberal scale. The most conservative residents were in Mississippi and the least conservative were in Hawaii.

North Carolina was the 22nd most conservative state, or slightly right of center in the 2010 poll. Surprisingly, the state that came closest to being North Carolina’s ideological twin was Wisconsin. (A new poll published this year has North Carolina shifting to the 21st most conservative state, making Missouri closer ideologically.)

Nor was this the first time I ran across the Wisconsin comparison.

Progressive in spurts

Wisconsin in the first two decades of the 20th century was a laboratory of progressive experimentation under Gov. Robert La Follette. Wisconsin created the first state primary election system, the first effective workplace injury compensation law and the first state income tax, and later the first unemployment compensation program.

It was shortly after that period that North Carolina made its great leap forward, changing from one of the country’s backwaters to “the Wisconsin of the South.”

The North Carolina business community was behind the push. In 1923, the Southern Textile Bulletin of Charlotte ran an editorial headed, “Expenditures Produce Prosperity.” “The man who is educated,” it argued, “starts new enterprises or engages in new lines of business that pay taxes.” Good roads opened new markets for farmers.

“North Carolina stood at the forefront of the movement, and it was more in the 1920s than in the prewar progressive era that the state won its reputation as ‘the Wisconsin of the South,’ ” wrote noted Southern historian George B. Tindall in his 1967 book, “The Emergence of The New South.”

“During this period it developed under President Harry Woodburn Chase the leading state university in the South, embarked upon the most ambitious highway program in the area, and expanded its activities in education, public health and welfare.” (Chase was president of the University of North Carolina from 1919 to 1930.)

Conservative moods

North Carolina’s progressive reputation did not come cheap.

Between 1913 and 1930, taxes in North Carolina rose 554 percent, a rate of increase exceeded only by Delaware, and between 1915 and 1925 the rate of state expenditures grew by 847 percent, a rate greater than any other state.

Wisconsin is a moderate state that elects progressive politicians such as La Follette, William Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl, or it can elect conservatives such as Joe McCarthy, Tommy Thompson, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.

So it is with North Carolina, which has elected progressives such as Kerr Scott, Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt, John Edwards and Kay Hagan, and conservatives such as Josiah Bailey, Sam Ervin, Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole, John East and Richard Burr.

Walker became a hero to many conservatives when as governor he moved to strip many of the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions in Wisconsin – and then survived the recall election that that move engendered.

In North Carolina, public employees have no collective bargaining rights.

But otherwise, when Walker campaigns for GOP candidate Pat McCrory in Greensboro, Burlington and Raleigh on Tuesday, in many ways he will be on familiar political turf.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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