In his esteemed analysis of the post-Reconstruction-era South, “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” political scientist V.O. Key labels North Carolina a “progressive plutocracy,” commending the state for its “progressive outlook and action” despite the significant political influence wielded by business elites. In their reassessment of the region, “The Transformation of Southern Politics,” Jake Bass and Dr. Walter DeVries arrive at a different conclusion. “Key’s description of North Carolina as a ‘progressive plutocracy’ was an apt one in the late 1940s,” they opine. “When one compares indices of economic development, the level of participation and modernization of the political process [and] the relative neglect of long-standing social problems,” they continue, “what remains is a political plutocracy that lives with a progressive myth.” Though published nearly four decades ago, Bass and DeVries’ conclusion rings true to this very day, as many contemporary scholars are beginning to ask the polarizing question, ‘What is happening in North Carolina?’
For the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican Party has been elected to the governorship and to majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and its representatives—explain the Institute for Southern Studies’ Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis—are “not the moderate, business-minded Republicans that North Carolinians have long been accustomed to.” In the past year alone, the General Assembly has enacted legislation which, as University of South Carolina history professor Dan T. Carter believes, “reads like a wish list ripped from the fulminations of Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Reed's right-wing Faith and Freedom Coalition and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.” “Is it as bad as it looks?” he asks. “My answer is always the same,” he explains. “It’s worse—a lot worse—than you think it is.”
At one point in time, North Carolina was very different. A century ago, Gov. Charles Aycock, notorious for his role in the 1898 and 1900 white supremacy campaigns, came to be known as the “Education Governor” for his support of increased salaries for educators, longer school terms and the construction of one school for every day he served in office. Aycock’s tenure, according to Appalachian State history professor Karl Campbell, “marked the beginning of the Progressive Era in Tar Heel politics.” Governors Cameron Morrison and O. Max Gardner continued North Carolina’s progressive legacy by improving the quality of the state’s mental institutions, prisons and health services and reorganizing the state government so as to assume local debts for roads and public schools. Years later, Gov. Kerr Scott implemented his widely acclaimed “Go Forward” program, which included the pavement of roads between rural and urban regions of the state, increased access to electrical and phone services and expanded public health programs. Gov. Luther Hodges became renowned for his attempt to limit racial tension in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education as well as the establishment of the Research Triangle Park, while Gov. Terry Sanford consolidated the University of North Carolina system and oversaw the creation of the state’s network of community colleges.
Progressivism in North Carolina once transcended political ideology and, as Carter indicates, “was an approach shared by moderate Republican governors like James Holshouser, Jr. and James Martin. Compared to most of the old Confederacy,” he continues, “the state’s leadership made North Carolina seem an oasis of moderation in a desert of reactionary politics.”
Times have changed. The state’s progressive personal and corporate income taxes, first introduced by Gov. Morrison so as to account for the expenditures necessary for the state to lead the South in economic advancement, were recently lowered and flattened, while the estate tax was repealed and the sales tax expanded to encompass currently untaxed items. The General Assembly’s own Fiscal Research Division recently found that a married couple with two children making $20,000 a year will go from receiving a $222 tax rebate to owing $40 while a similar couple making $250,000 a year will receive a $2,318 tax cut. When considering the repeal of the earned income tax credit—which was signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley so as to financially assist 907,000 low-income workers, the net effect is an increase in taxes for over 80 percent of North Carolinians. This shift will reduce the state’s revenue by more than $2 billion in the next five years, an effect which will likely impact public services in the future. The General Assembly has also refused the expansion of Medicaid coverage to over-500,000 uninsured North Carolinians—a decision which the North Carolina Justice Center reported will divert 25,000 jobs and $15 billion in federal funds from the state within three years. Governor Scott’s lengthening of unemployment benefits to 26 weeks—which the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Patrick Conway contends has prevented 50,000 North Carolinians, each year, from falling into poverty—has been reduced to between 12 and 20 weeks, thereby resulting in the denial of benefits to nearly 170,000 unemployed citizens. Gov. Mel Broughton’s granting of a 10 percent pay increase to public school teachers with a master’s degree or higher and Gov. Jim Hunt’s Primary Reading Program, which assigns a teaching assistant to every classroom from kindergarten through the third grade, and Smart Start Program, which assists students who are unable to learn at their grade level, have also been eviscerated. The state’s budget for next year cuts from the rolls nearly 5,200 teachers and 4,580 teacher assistants, increases class size, freezes salary increases for educators, ends their tenure and bonuses for advanced degrees, diverts $90 million from public to private schools and reduces the amount of students eligible for the Smart Start Program by 2,400. The legislature has also significantly modified voting procedure, thus ending teenage pre-registration, same-day registration, straight-ticket and out-of-precinct voting, cutting early voting by seven days and requiring that citizens provide government-issued photo identification prior to voting—all which many have determined will disproportionately affect voters who usually cast their ballots for Democrats. New laws allow concealed weapon permit holders to bring loaded guns to schools and into restaurants, bars and parks, repealed the Racial Justice Act—an effort to prevent systematic racial bias from affecting death penalty decisions—allow for the drug testing of welfare recipients, mandate the controversial teaching to students that abortions create significant risk of premature birth in later pregnancies, effectually close all but one of the state’s abortion clinics and weaken the ability of local governments to enact environmental and public health regulations.
Such legislation has led the New York Times, and many other publications, to proclaim that North Carolina has lost its reputation for being “a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness.” Civil rights leader Julian Bond recently stated that “North Carolina has become the new Mississippi.” The Nation and The Atlantic have since compared the state to Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most state employees brought crowds to the state’s capital. The comparisons work, wrote Greg Lacour in the Charlotte Magazine, “but only superficially.” “What’s happening here is far more extreme, far-reaching and damaging.”
“At times,” he continued, “it’s seemed as if this legislative session has produced one gigantic omnibus bill, the Back to Mayberry Act of 2013, all designed to wipe out 40 years of progress in one wrecking ball of a session.”
Mousa Alshanteer is a Trinity sophomore and the editorial page managing editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and runs on alternate Fridays. Send Mousa a message on Twitter @MousaAlshanteer.