Rob Christensen

North Carolina was always less progressive than its reputation, this book suggests

Larry Tise at the Wright Brothers Memorial.
Larry Tise at the Wright Brothers Memorial. Palgrave MacMillan

North Carolina was described as the reform-minded “Wisconsin of the South” in the 1920s, a “progressive plutocracy” in the 1940s and the “Dixie Dynamo” in the 1960s.

But how does one square that with the success of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who defined the outer limits of conservativism, or the current GOP legislature which has made the Tar Heel State a national laboratory for right-leaning policies?

That has been a struggle for at least a generation of historians and journalists and others who write about North Carolina politics.

That puzzle was the subject of a recent panel by four of the state’s most respected scholars on North Carolina history – Jeffrey Crow, Larry Tise, Karl Campbell, and Harry Watson.

The purpose of the panel was to discuss the book, “New Voyages to Carolina: Reinterpreting North Carolina,” which is composed of 15 scholarly essays edited by Tise and Crow and to which they contributed. The book grew out of a series of discussions held across the state in 2012 and 2013.

Tise and Crow suggest that North Carolina’s progressivism has been overstated, and that at its roots it is conservative.

“North Carolina has always been something of a middling state — a lot of people, a lot of diversity, a complicated geo-physical landscape, moderate aspirations, low taxes, low salaries, a lot of agriculture, tourist lures at both ends of the state, some talented and renowned expatriates, a good state university and many outstanding private colleges, and barely adequate schools.”

“We need a new narrative for North Carolina,’’ panelist Campbell said. The panel was part of the semi-annual meeting of the Historical Society of North Carolina held at Raleigh’s Meredith College.

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Writers have been grappling with this question since at least the 1970s when writers Jack Bass and Walter DeVries wrote about North Carolina’s “progressive myth.”

Since then, Tar Heel historians have tended to write about those who been marginalized over the years — particularly African-Americans, Native-Americans and women — as a corrective to past magnolia-scented histories.

The origins of North Carolina’s progressive reputation are clear enough. Having started the 20th century as one of the poorest and most rural places in the country, North Carolina sought to pull itself up by the bootstraps through rapid industrialization, aggressive road building, and by creating one of the nation’s most respected university systems. It later added the creation of one of the best community college systems, liberally funded the arts, and midwifed the Research Triangle Park.

But during the same period, North Carolina remained conservative on the social issues — whether maintaining a somewhat more benign model of segregation than the rest of the South, or voting against women’s rights, or gay rights, or opposing liquor sales or the creation of a state lottery for a long as possible.

On other fronts, North Carolina has consistently underfunded public education, done less for the poor, and has been hostile to organized labor.

Since 2010, when Republicans took control of the legislature in the Tea Party-influenced election, conservatives have dominated the legislature and the congressional delegation. But this has as much to do with political gamesmanship — the ability to draw firewalls around Republican districts through gerrymandering — as it does any ideological shift in the state.

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According to the Gallup polling organization, North Carolina has consistently remained a center/right state. Virginia and Florida are the only Southern states positioned to North Carolina’s political left, and they are heavily influenced by the D.C. suburbs and the heavy northern migration into South Florida, respectively.

Few states have been more politically competitive than North Carolina. In the 1980s, only Minnesota had more close races for the top offices. In the 1990s, no state was more competitive. In the last decade, only Florida, Minnesota and Missouri were more competitive. That trend is continuing in this decade.

Is North Carolina the state of Terry Sanford, Kerr Scott, Jim Hunt, Roy Cooper, John Edwards and Bev Perdue? Or is it the state of Jesse Helms, Richard Burr, Phil Berger, Thom Tillis, Elizabeth Dole and Jim Martin?

The answer, of course, is that it is both, with candidates from both parties appealing to different parts of the electorate.

But most states can swing Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, on occasion.

Is Wisconsin the state of progressive Robert La Follette, and Sens. William Proxmire, Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold? Or is the conservative state that elected Sen. Joe McCarthy, Gov. Scott Walker, and House Speaker Paul Ryan?

Is California a conservative state that sent Richard Nixon to the Senate and made Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson governors? Or is it a liberal state that produced Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senators Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein, and Gov. Jerry Brown?

North Carolina’s progressive reputation has come under attack from both the left and the right.

Liberal historians emphasize the social injustices, the racism, and the class and gender divides. Conservative thinkers say North Carolina was never progressive, and they argue that they are the rightful heirs to the Tar Heel political legacy.

Watson, a University of North Carolina historian, suggested that what may be needed is not a new narrative for North Carolina, but a more a more complex discussion of the various existing strands of narratives.

Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack