The Secret of the Sauce: What Democrats Need to Know About North Carolina's Kick-Ass Populism
Stretching past scrubby pines and open fields where tobacco once grew, Highway 70 East guides you to a low-slung, red-roofed building where the scent of smoldering oakwood hangs thickly in the air. You have reached Wilber’s, the High Church of old-school barbecue, where whole hogs are slow-cooked over coals, doused with red-pepper vinegar and served to locals with tar-thick accents.
On the wall hangs a shrine to a beloved politician, whose death has erased neither his legacy nor the fond feelings of the octogenarian owner. The man remembered is not Jesse Helms, the segregationist right-winger who symbolized North Carolina to the rest of America for over a quarter of a century.
The face you see is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Taxer of fatcats. Regulator of banks. Friend of the worker and the farmer. Checker of unchecked capitalism.
Proprietor Wilberdean Shirley is a diehard Democrat, and his love for FDR is not unusual in these parts, where old-timers remember how power lines dragged through swamps and rivers brought refrigerators, electric stoves, washing machines, and water pumps. They recall the radio crackles that wafted the outside world into farmhouse kitchens, drawing city and country values closer together. FDR’s programs set the stage for military bases, public health triumphs, accelerated industrialization and desperately needed jobs.
My granddaddy, a tobacco farmer, particularly prized his “two seater” – a deluxe outhouse constructed courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps to combat the hookworm scourge.
The Jesse Helms cartoon of North Carolina is familiar: an anti-union, private enterprise-worshipping backwater where racism and religious bigotry run amok. And it has its truth, evidenced in last spring’s vote in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage, punctuated by hate-bombs from preachers who suggested, among other things, that homosexuals be left to die behind electric fences.
But there’s a special ingredient in Tar Heel politics that the state’s establishment – first, wealthy planters, and later, industrialists and corporate titans of the New South – have repeatedly ignored at their peril.
Unique in Dixie, North Carolina has a populist tradition going back to the 1670s, when rebels led by John Culpeper reacted to the proprietary governor’s attempt to enforce the restrictive British Navigation Acts by tossing him in prison and setting up their own legislature, which lasted two years. With a kick as potent as red-pepper vinegar, this insurgent current has risen up again and again to punish elites who overplay their hands. If your political coalition fails to reckon with its enduring power, you’ll end up teetering between chronic instability and full-throated conservative reaction.
The Democrats may want to ponder this history to avoid repeating a very old mistake as they roll into Charlotte for September’s nominating shindig.
Ornery, Radical Tarheels
Radicals found their way to the home state of Billy Graham and Jesse Helms from the very beginning. They set up camp mostly in the interior, where they vexed the Anglican aristocrats of the Tidewater region. Attracted by the colony’s religious freedoms, Quakers preaching non-violence and spiritual equality between men and women quickly seized the political reins. Aghast, the Anglicans eventually wrestled them back, but until 1800 the Friends were pretty much the only organized religion around, with the exception of Moravian dissenters who shockingly practiced common ownership and profit-sharing.
The Anglicans eyed these and other backcountry “enthusiasts” with alarm. Might these nonconformists take to calling out abuses of power?
They might, and they did. The Occupiers of their day, Protestants of various “New Light” sects rebelled against the royal government’s inequitable taxation in the War of Regulation. In the year 1770, in a dress rehearsal for the Revolution, a mob snatched a corrupt county officer by the heels and dragged him down the stairs, bouncing his head on every step. They chucked another from the window of his house.