The Secret of the Sauce: What Democrats Need to Know About North Carolina's Kick-Ass Populism
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But North Carolina’s business-led Democratic Party was in deep trouble. Conventional wisdom ascribes this to the race issue. Race assuredly played a major role, but its workings were conditioned by a fundamental dilemma arising from tax policies favored by the wealthy. In a twist that would have made the Regulators reach for a pitchfork, business Democrats rapidly shifted state tax burdens from the rich to the poor between 1957 and 1977.
When expenditures were new and relatively small, the sheer novelty of decent education and other public goods attracted widespread cheering. But as mounting bills were handed to those who could least afford them, the Democrats realized too late that they had given the Republicans an opening. Trolling for white votes to build national Republican majorities, first Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan made common cause with Jesse Helms, who guided the new course of reactionary Republican politics with unflinching purpose.
The new climate made things much harder for liberal Democrats. In his losing 1984 senate race against Helms, Governor Jim Hunt feverishly courted bankers and multinationals, hoping that talk of economic growth would drown out the Republican conversation on abortion and homosexuality. That his “business-friendly” tax policies were hostile to struggling Tar Heels was plain, especially to the blacks and liberal whites who had helped his campaign. In the aftermath of the defeat of Hunt and other Democrats, pollster William Hamilton found that by a two-to-one margin, North Carolinians wanted to abolish the regressive sales taxes and keep taxes on corporations. Two years later, Democrats in the state legislature did just the opposite.
They quickly drowned in their own snake oil.
To Be, Rather Than to Seem
Which brings us to the present conundrum, reflected vividly in North Carolina’s motto, Esse quam videri, which means, “To be, rather than to seem.” It is a sentiment the Democrats might reflect upon as they study the electoral map.
Four years ago , reeling at the financial collapse, Tar Heels astounded the nation by electing Barack Obama, making him the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since 1976 -- and certainly the first black. For a moment, it seemed that the Democratic Party might reclaim its heritage as the party of egalitarian opportunity.
It was not to be. The Wall Street-friendly centrism of the current White House has rankled in a state where folks have little patience for the rich man’s tricks.
North Carolina’s per capita income has been falling steadily for the last decade relative to the rest of the country. 2008 accelerated the pace of the plunge and recovery has been lackluster. And how have North Carolina Democrats responded to evaporating manufacturing jobs and the crushing devastation of the Great Recession? With little more than policies of cutting taxes and budgets. Their champions (I’m looking at you, Erskine Bowles) rush to rip the social safety net. They refuse to admit that their favored trickle-down strategy in the face of globalization has left a desert of Walmart destitution.
True to the script of the state’s history, deep-pocketed conservatives like the Koch brothers and Tar Heel tycoon Art Pope have capitalized on this mistake made by Democrats. They know that state legislatures can be bought on the cheap, and so they spurred the Tea Party movement that helped the GOP take control of the General Assembly in 2010, whence it set about reversing national healthcare reform, curtailing reproductive rights, restricting immigration, and shoving gays back into the closet. (The influence of the Kochs on state politics has been so pervasive it has just been satirized in the new Will Farrell movie, The Campaign.)