N.C. politics illustrate an important national moral: Republicans don’t have to address the social and economic concerns of ordinary people in order to win elections. Democrats do.
Originally published in the Washington Monthly.
FIVE YEARS AGO, IN THE AFTERMATH of the biggest GOP sweep North Carolina had ever seen, a group of stunned Democratic Party leaders paid for a mammoth public-opinion poll to find out what went wrong. Pollster William Hamilton surveyed 10,000 North Carolinians—and found a surprisingly wide streak of economic populism.
By a two-to-one margin, North Carolinians wanted to abolish the state’s sales tax on groceries, a regressive tax first imposed in 1961 to benefit the state’s public schools. They also opposed efforts by the textile and furniture industries to repeal a state tax on business inventories. Taken together, the poll’s findings suggested that North Carolinians supported an economic strategy that lowered taxes for average citizens while maintaining taxes for corporations.
So what did the Democrats in the state legislature do the next year? They raised the sales tax on food, while lowering the inventory tax.
On the face of it, that legislative course makes no sense at all. But in Tar Heel Politics: Myths and Realities (University of North Carolina Press), sociologist Paul Luebke argues that, regrettably, the Democrats’ regressive tax agenda is completely in line with the party’s philosophy, particularly in the South.
In this first major rethinking of North Carolina politics since 1949, when V.O. Key called the state a “progressive plutocracy,” Luebke creates a political model that holds not only in his home state but throughout much of the nation. He discards the “conservative” and “liberal” labels and substitutes the more appropriate “traditionalist” and “modernizer,” which describe the two strains of politicians who dominate North Carolina and most of the South today.
TRADITIONALIST POLITICIANS, SUCH AS REPUBLICAN Jesse Helms, draw their philosophy from Protestant fundamentalism and rural values. They don’t oppose all economic change, but they prefer “changes that allow the social relations to continue.” Traditionalists support such low-wage industries as textile and furniture manufacturing and are uncomfortable with high-technology industries that could bring in outsiders and drive up the wage scale. But what gives traditionalists their base of support is not economics; it’s their adamant stand against efforts to alter the social order. Some of the issues they raise—crime, union corruption, the morality of abortion—resonate even with traditionally liberal voters.
For example, Luebke describes a $7.50-a-plate “rubber chicken” dinner for middle-class Helms supporters in the textile-and-tobacco town of Henderson. The evening begins with an invocation, the national anthem, and the Pledge of Allegiance—and then Helms launches into his attack on the groups that would disrupt the status quo: “Every pressure group known to man is converging on North Carolina, and they’re forthright in saying that their number-one goal is to eliminate me from the Senate… It’s the homosexuals, labor unions, those militant feminists, all of them.” Helms warned that Jesse Jackson had come into the state “to register, I-forgot-what-it was, 200,000 or 300,000 blacks for the sole purpose of defeating Jesse Helms.”
BY CONTRAST, MODERNIZERS BELIEVE in economic expansion, even if it means disrupting the social order. They believe the government has a role in providing roads, schools, and water and sewer systems in order to lure industry. During his 1984 race against Jesse Helms, former Governor Jim Hunt, the quintessential modernizer, drew most of his business support from the state’s growth-oriented sectors: bankers, real-estate developers, and executives of multinational corporations.
Modernizers are willing to grant legal equality to blacks and women because it helps ensure a dynamic business climate. But Luebke explains that modernizers are not fundamentally committed to economic fairness. If they believe a certain investment will improve the business climate and help most citizens, they will make it—even if the extra tax burden falls mainly on poor and middle-income people. Only in the most dire circumstances did the Democratic North Carolina legislature raise the corporate income tax three years ago—and it was the first increase in 54 years.
The point of all this, writes Luebke, is that the Democrats’ modernizer philosophy is precisely why they lose. For example, even when Jim Hunt began losing his wide lead in the 1984 Senate race, he refused to talk about the populist economic issues that could have won him the election—issues such as tax fairness, health insurance, and low manufacturing wages. Instead, he announced on the campaign trail that he supported school prayer, the death penalty, and the Reagan military buildup. To prove he was a man of conservative principles, he refused to commute the death sentence of Velma Barfield, the first woman to be executed in North Carolina in 40 years.
“If Hunt conceded economics, then the spotlight would be placed on abortion, the King holiday, communism, or school prayer, the kinds of issues on which Helms loved to run,” writes Luebke. By trying to out-Helms Helms on certain issues, all Hunt did was lose the enthusiasm of the blacks and liberal whites who made up the core of his party’s campaign workers.
There is a lesson in this, not just for North Carolina Democrats but for national Democrats as well. If Michael Dukakis had paid attention to economic-fairness issues during most of his presidential campaign, as he did in the final few weeks, he might be president today. Indeed, Dukakis’s early campaign bore a striking resemblance to Hunt’s “4 E’s” theme—economy, education, elderly, and environment—a vague group of issues that could have been espoused by any politician in America regardless of ideology.
Fortunately, some Democrats are beginning to listen. The Democrats competing for the nomination to challenge Helms this year have run more populist campaigns than have Democrats in recent years, raising issues such as health insurance, job security, and home ownership.
Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, and Sam Nunn, take note: George Bush blends modernizer and traditionalist features in a very appealing way. Democratic presidential candidates must break out of their straight modernizer mold, recognize the legitimate social concerns raised by conservatives, and take on the economic issues confronting ordinary people.