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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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But the Republicans’ hold on power is far from secure. The state's changing demographics, bringing in more people of color, bode ill for the GOP. Frustrated by economic stagnation, bank bailouts and political corruption, Tar Heel voters, like those elsewhere, eye both parties with disgust. The Democrats still hold a registration lead in this swing state, despite falloff in others.

Tar Heel populist voices have hardly fallen silent. In late spring, protesters greeted the state legislature banging pots to announce their fury at budget cuts and unemployment. But can the national Democrats hear them? The choice of a slick banking town known as the “Wall Street of the South” to host their convention certainly argues for deafness. The city has long been held in suspicion by the rest of the state. I grew up in Raleigh, the state capital, and considered Charlotte to be almost a foreign zone, filled with banksters and sterile office buildings and golf courses. “A tight, white world,” as one friend put it recently.

Bank of America may be Charlotte’s economic center, but the foreclosure-happy, price-gouging, job-slashing avatar of Too Big to Fail increasingly looks like a national dead-end to most people. Obama is scheduled to accept his party’s nomination at Bank of America Stadium from the corporate-friendly centrist Bill Clinton as millionaires in skyboxes peer on. Such a scene could hardly be better suited to stir up John Culpeper’s ghost. The Democrats are hoping that giving populist Elizabeth Warren a key speaking slot will help deflect some of the ire, but there are signs that Culpeper’s ghost won’t be so easily appeased. On May 9, Occupiers marched on BofA headquarters – and they promised to come back in September, despite frantic efforts by the city to curb demonstrations. Unions, outraged by the choice of a city lacking unionized hotel workers, are also threatening to hold protests.

The Democrats’ faith in Mammon easily surpassed the intensity of their populist urges when, after proclaiming that their convention would eschew million-dollar donations, they allowed local organizers to do just that by forming the New American City fund to handle donations from the likes of Duke Energy and Bank of America to put on lavish and no doubt tax-deductible parties.

In a spirit of high pandering, the Democratic Party has selected three official barbecue sauces for its Charlotte extravaganza. Such ignorance of local tradition has already played to comic effect, beginning with Michelle Obama’s praise of Charlotte as a place for “great barbecue,” which is, of course, nonsense (the state’s best ‘cue is found elsewhere). North Carolinians recognize only two types of barbecue sauce: 1) the red-pepper vinegar dominant in the east (considered by many to be the only sauce; and 2) the sweeter, tomato-based variety favored in Lexington, in the west. To these two indigenous sauces the Democrats have added a third, “official” sauce, a mustard-based, South Carolina product that ranks just above radiator drippings in Tar Heel estimation.

You could argue that there is a third sauce in North Carolina, more to do with the stuff sold in bottles at the supermarket and labeled “Heinz” – a smooth, insipid, fake-tasting variety we might call “To Seem Rather Than To Be” sauce.” Slathering on this particular condiment is likely to gain the Democrats little traction in the state where the tradition of popular rebellion is more than 300 years old.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.