Professor's book traces postwar Tar Heel politics

rchristensen@newsobserver.com January 11, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory

    Tom Eamon

    University of North Carolina Press,

    416 pages

  • Meet the author

    Author Tom Eamon will talk about his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

Few states have undergone a transformation like North Carolina has experienced since World War II – the end of Jim Crow, the rise of two-party politics, the decline of textiles and tobacco, and the kudzu-like Sunbelt growth.

Tom Eamon has been watching these changes unfold all his life – in recent decades as a political science professor at East Carolina University. He has put his keen observations into a new book, “The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory.”

Eamon’s is the most comprehensive account to date of postwar Tar Heel politics, providing an insightful guide to the state’s political psyche. His book is peppered with short, sharply drawn sketches of key leaders, discussions of trends, electoral maps and election results.

He focuses on four major themes: the state’s movement away from racial segregation; the development of a two-party system; important elections; and leadership and personalities.

His judgments are always sound. While the state has made great progress on race, Eamon notes that deep racial cleavages remain. North Carolina is likely to remain hotly contested political ground for the foreseeable future, he concludes.

Eamon is a believer in the great man – or woman – theory of history, that strong personalities such as Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford, Kerr Scott and Jesse Helms can make a difference in the direction of a state.

Sanford, governor from 1961 to 1965, was one such figure who helped push the state into a moderate path, particularly regarding civil rights and education, Eamon writes.

“Other figures have been more charismatic, superior speakers and maybe more politically astute,” he writes, “but no major state official so aggressively pushed North Carolina toward new frontiers – frontiers that many people had no desire to cross. Sanford envisioned a state that would lead the way in education and economic development.”

Eamon declares Helms, the five-term senator, “a political giant, much too big and complex for a simple epitaph.”

He also tries to resurrect the careers of sometimes-overlooked figures, singling out Dan Moore (1965-69), a conservative Democrat, as one of our most underrated governors.

Eamon’s book is filled with important insights. He notes, for example, that North Carolina remained in the Democratic column years after most of the South was voting Republican.

In the 1960 presidential contest, John F. Kennedy ran stronger in Eastern North Carolina than in Massachusetts or New York City, Eamon writes.

In the 1964 presidential race between Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, North Carolina gave Johnson his biggest margin in the South except for LBJ’s home state of Texas. Eamon cites the importance of the federal tobacco price support program down east, support for the Tennessee Valley Authority in the mountains, and the imprint of “economic populism and memories of Roosevelt’s New Deal” as reasons.

“Eastern North Carolina was the only region of its kind in the South – lowland rural with a large but historically shut-out black population – to vote for Johnson over Goldwater,” Eamon writes.

In later years, four-term Democratic Gov. Hunt’s superior coalition-building skills kept the state from becoming Republican, he contends.

Eamon says Republicans are likely to control the legislature for the next decade because of their power over redistricting. But he makes no long-term predictions about the state, which has trended more Democratic in presidential races.

So far, he argues, two-party politics has not resulted in more responsive politics but more “polarization and downright hostility between the two political parties.’’

For anyone interested in North Carolina politics, Eamon’s book will be an essential reference.

Christensen: 919-829-4532; Twitter: @oldpolhack

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