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Doing Better: Use history as a guide to NC’s political future

“The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory” by East Carolina University political science professor Tom Eamon.
“The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory” by East Carolina University political science professor Tom Eamon.

With the New Year comes a major national and state election cycle that is predictable in perhaps just one way: What happens in North Carolina will get a lot of attention.

Statewide, Republicans wield the most influence they have held since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Yet, the state is up for grabs at the presidential level, having narrowly gone to Barack Obama in 2008 before slipping back to Mitt Romney in 2012.

North Carolina’s status, politically, as one of America’s most closely divided states is apparent as well in ongoing national press coverage about heated battles here over health care funding, voting rights, tax policy and other issues.

But most of that coverage doesn’t truly offer an in-depth look at how we got to where are in our state’s politics – and, even more importantly, where we might be going in the decades to come.

For that, we have East Carolina University political science professor Tom Eamon. If you want to head to the polls this fall deeply informed about the complex forces that have shaped our government since the 1940s, now’s the time to read his groundbreaking book “The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory.”

The book, released two years ago by UNC Press, has staying power – much like Eamon, a Tar Heel native who holds master’s and doctorate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill and has taught at ECU for four decades. Eamon is as reluctant as anyone to make predictions about this November’s elections. But he can help us make sense of the bigger picture.

First, if it feels like we’re living through some exceptionally divisive times, it’s because we are – even by historical standards. “From a long-term standpoint,” Eamon writes, “this period may be most remembered for the extent of the polarization and downright hostility between the two political parties.”

In the modern era, conflict has usually been a good thing for North Carolina. Fights over racial integration, rivalries in higher education and disagreements over economic development policy ultimately forged a more inclusive state with stronger growth and greater opportunity. The shift from what amounted to Democratic one-party rule throughout the 20th century to a legitimate two-party system today held the promise of nurturing more productive conflict.

Instead, the political environment has turned poisonous in an era of stark economic inequalities. “There’s a certain soundness to the argument that two-party competition enhances democracy,” Eamon notes. “But that thesis must await further testing, at least in North Carolina. One thing is certain, however: the old one-party system is dead.”

New arrivals

Our relatively new two-party system will keep clashing as our population grows and reshapes our cultural and political climate. From 2000 to 2010, for example, the total number of Hispanic residents grew to nearly 10 percent of our state’s total population, with a significant number moving to rural areas whose politics they will alter over time. Meanwhile, Americans from the West, upper Midwest and Northeast continue to move to North Carolina in droves, vaulting us to the ninth most populous state and bringing the sizeable chunk of Electoral College votes that come with it. The impact of these new arrivals is evident in how North Carolina – which didn’t support a Democratic presidential candidate from 1976 to 2008 – has become a major national battleground in the past decade.

When he looks to the past and compares it with our present, Eamon finds reasons for optimism – and caution – about the future. “Democracy is alive as never before,” he writes of North Carolina, “yet in many respects it is defined by its imperfections. In a system that strives to be free, the seeds of destruction lurk just beneath the surface.”

Before each of us can do our part to strengthen our political landscape, we need to understand it. Eamon’s been helping his students do that for decades. With election season right around the corner, his book gives us a chance to study up, too.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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