‘As Maine goes,” the old saying went, “so goes the nation.” Not anymore. Nowadays, North Carolina is America’s bellwether. It is here that the potent forces transforming America – changing demographics, fiscal crises and strident partisanship – are colliding most fiercely, creating a perfect storm of anger, confusion and, perhaps, opportunity.
On the surface, the most bitter political fights across North Carolina and the nation revolve around social policies, especially health care, welfare programs and education. At heart, all rest on fundamental questions of community – on whom we see as our neighbors and how we define our obligations to one another. In politics, they often revolve around our willingness, usually through taxes, to reach out to and sacrifice for someone else. North Carolina’s unique history makes it ground zero for this debate.
Numbers tell part of the story. Since 1990, about 2 million people have migrated to North Carolina. During the last decade, only Texas and Florida have absorbed higher numbers of transplants.
This is especially remarkable because, for much of the 20th century, North Carolina had the highest percentage of native-born residents in the country. In 1910, 95 percent of the residents were Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred. By 1950, this figure still stood at 85 percent. Today, about 42 percent of residents were born outside the state. We are a community in serious flux.
This broad transformation – from a stable home-grown population to a rapidly changing society of emigrants and immigrants – offers a clear lens for seeing where the state has been and where it is going. North Carolina distinguished itself during the 20th century as the most forward-thinking Southern state. Building on a tradition of smart public investment symbolized by its university system, North Carolina became known as the good roads state, laying down hard surfaces from Murphy to Manteo. Today, North Carolina and the vast state of Texas have the most miles of state-maintained roads in the country.
In the 1940s, it became the first state to provide ongoing funding to an orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony. In the 1950s, as plans were developed for the visionary Research Triangle Park, it created the nation’s first state-built museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art.
How did such a poor state have the wisdom to make such far-reaching choices? Most histories focus on the talented artists, wealthy philanthropists and enlightened political leaders who led the charge. Their efforts were crucial, but this shortchanges the willingness of the people to pay for and support these enterprises. They did so for a variety of reasons but among these was the broad understanding that they were benefiting themselves – and people like themselves.
Today, North Carolinians are embroiled in fierce fights over questions of the public good, and there are legitimate concerns about the proper role and size of government and its ability to efficiently improve people’s lives. But underlying all these is the fraying of the social fabric, a loosening sense of connection with one’s fellow citizens in a rapidly changing landscape.
Ironically, as bias against blacks, women and other once-marginalized groups has decreased in recent decades, so has the level of social trust. While many a furrowed brow has pondered America’s decreasing faith in government – it hit an all-time low this year – less attention has been focused on the fact that we don’t trust each other, either. In an AP-GfK poll conducted last month, only about a third of Americans surveyed said most people can be trusted.
Studies show that the level of “social trust” – a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others – is correlated with inequality and diversity. A Pew Center survey found that “the highest levels of social trust are in the homogeneous, egalitarian, well-to-do countries of Scandinavia.” Bottom line: It is difficult to persuade people to sacrifice for the common good when they don’t know and don’t trust their neighbors. This is even harder when government is not just seeking money for roads almost everyone uses but for social welfare programs that directly benefit only some residents.
This insight explains our angry, us-against-them politics, but it does not show a way out. It demonstrates that the politics of division is self-defeating; it is hard to build a community by tearing it apart. It challenges us to find new solutions to new problems. Will we?
As North Carolina goes, so goes the nation.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.