Election 2014  
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The Secret of the Sauce: What Democrats Need to Know About North Carolina's Kick-Ass Populism

A native explains how the people of North Carolina have been giving hell to fatcats for over 300 years.

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Appeals to economic fairness and mistrust of moneymen were clearly appealing to ordinary North Carolinians. But the old order had a significant advantage: It was the old order. When country folk listened to radical speakers, they heard religion ridiculed, patriotism blasted and racial equality proclaimed. Talk of treason and atheism alienated people who lacked basic necessities and wanted to hear about how to improve their welfare.

In May of this year, when the 93-year-old Billy Graham declared from his mountaintop retreat near Asheville that God did not wish gays to marry, his call was duly heeded. So it went in the '20s, when evangelicals aligned with the conservative Democrats cautioned rural people to reject the “pinkos,” organizers and evolutionists in favor of spiritual salvation. 

In 1928 the Democratic Party monolith finally cracked when conservative leader Senator Furnifold Simmons backed Republican Herbert Hoover instead of the Catholic, anti-Prohibition Al Smith. His apostasy cost Simmons his iron grip on the party, and soon a Democratic faction led by textile magnate O. Max Gardner emerged to challenge the old guard. Political scientist V.O. Key described this new current as “Progressive Plutocracy.” Some of its progressivism reflected business desires for cautious modernization, but much stemmed from the realization that power depended on at least lukewarm support from the real progressives.

The New Deal and Beyond

When the Great Depression struck, evangelical defenses of the old order palled in the face of farm bankruptcies and soaring unemployment. The Roosevelt administration’s relief efforts and push to modernize the South during World War II galvanized more liberal Democrats like W. Kerr Scott, a pro-Truman New Dealer who defeated the Progressive Plutocrats in the 1948 governor’s race. He appointed Frank Graham, by then the president of UNC, to fill the senate term left open by the death of the incumbent.

Graham narrowly lost his effort to win reelection in his own right in an epic red-baiting battle featuring a young Jesse Helms enlisted on the other side. Graham’s defeat and the labor movement’s failure to organize the South put the latter-day incarnations of the Progressive Plutocrats back in the saddle. But the Holy Grail of power was out of reach without genuine progressives. Garnering support from eastern liberal foundations, the more progressive parts of the national Democratic Party, and eventually key civil rights activists, these business Democrats pushed back against reactionary forces.

In the '50s and '60s, leaders like Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford championed industrial development and investments in education and various social projects. Their records, especially Hodges’, were hardly stellar, but these men refused to stoke the racial violence breaking out in other parts of the South. The business moguls who supported them were shrewd enough to see that having North Carolina burn like Mississippi would be inconvenient for the bottom line.

Progressive Christians in the state following a social gospel tradition of inclusiveness and equality picked up the thread of religious dissent. In 1958, the liberal firebrand W.W. Finlator led Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist to embrace all races. Over a tenure that stretched into the 1980s, he gave passionate sermons calling for racial equality, women’s rights and relief for the poor that often landed on local editorial pages. The church’s support for gay marriage appalled the Southern Baptist Assembly, which expelled it in 1992. But today a lesbian co-pastor leads Pullen, which defies the state’s Billy Grahams from its post at the edge of North Carolina State University.

By the end of the '60s, Tar Heels seemed to be casting away the millstone of segregation. North Carolina became the poster-state of the modern South, bursting with pride in its desegregated schools, enviable higher education system and high-tech industries. The Research Triangle area, boasting more Ph.D.s, scientists and engineers than any comparable region in the country, became a kind of Cambridge-in-Tobaccoland. By the early '80s, the state’s eighth-grade history textbook unabashedly embraced evolution and racial equality and had my class of 12-year-olds cheerfully pronouncing the word “ol-i-garch” as we read of the state’s 300-year battle against backwardness.