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.
The planter class kept the upper hand, but even its stars had to bow to the state’s radically contrarian sentiments. The revolutionary hero Thomas Burke asserted both strong resistance to arbitrary power and ornery individualism when he insisted that the Articles of Confederation expressly recognize state’s rights. Later, North Carolina’s suspicions of manipulative elites helped make it the second last state to accept the Constitution.
Many a Tar Heel felt equally ambivalent about the Confederacy. The state was the last to secede, and western farmers, rightly suspecting that the conflict was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, took to draft dodging, desertion, tax evasion, and even open support of the Union. In the east, Henry Berry Lowry, a Native American “free person of color,” led an outlaw gang that raided plantations and launched guerilla attacks on the militia. The legendary “Robber Chief” continued to steal from the wealthy after the Civil War, concluding that the new Reconstruction Republican government could not be trusted any more than the one it replaced.
Insurgents v. the Establishment
During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides took turns looting John Green’s little factory in Durham and got a taste for his “bright leaf” tobacco. In the decades after, Washington Duke and his son Buck blazed their way to a near worldwide monopoly of the tobacco business. Spreading out alongside the mighty “Tobacco Trust,” a network of railroads linked the state to the rest of the nation. Commerce began to transform North Carolina’s agricultural, rural profile into an industrial and urban one, with political power shifting from east to west as towns exploded along the tracks from Raleigh through Greensboro, Winston-Salem to Charlotte.
The high-handed rapacity of the corporate chieftains reminded many North Carolinians of the old slave owners. As farm prices buckled and industrial conflicts spread, the spirit of John Culpeper and the Regulators reawakened. First the Knights of Labor and then the Populist Party traumatized the state political establishment.
In the mid-1890s, a “fusion” ticket of populists and Republicans, with key support from black leaders, won the legislature and elected not only the governor, but both U.S. senators. Recoiling in horror, conservative Democrats rallied a vast umbrella coalition of planters and industrialists to crush the insurgency with a mix of violence and bile-spitting racist appeals in the election of 1898. The Republican Party was reduced to a pathetic shell as the winners disenfranchised nearly all blacks and most poor whites through poll taxes, grandfather clauses and bare-knuckles brutality. By 1924, voter turnout, which stood at 85.6 percent in 1896, had plummeted to 35.8 percent in the presidential elections. In state elections, the Republican Party all but vanished. Democratic primaries were the only real contests. [See: Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson, Voting in American Elections: The Shape of the American Political Universe Since 1788 (Academica Press, 2009)].
But even this brutal regime could not survive without tolerating strident insurgent voices. The first wave of critics was heavily compromised by the Jim Crow system, but its searing indictments of the new corporate elites were often startlingly direct. State Supreme Court Chief Justice William Clark supported women’s suffrage and – very cautiously -- black economic empowerment; battling the railroads and the Dukes’ tobacco trust as he issued pointed calls for “socialized democracy.” Even Josephus Daniels, whose Raleigh News and Observer stoked the white supremacy that helped conservative Democrats beat back the Populists, filled his paper with reports of the Dukes’ tax dodging and mistreatment of farmers.
Once again North Carolina politics began to resemble a clash of two powerful weather fronts. Progressives grew bolder in the twenties, at first in the enclaves of the state’s colleges. At Wake Forest, liberal president William Louis Poteat mounted a vigorous defense of evolution. The University of North Carolina blossomed into a major intellectual center, as historian Frank Porter Graham and others encouraged the first stirrings of a revived labor movement. Fearful of another populist upsurge, major East Coast institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation lent support to these islands of enlightenment. Their graduates sprang onto the national literary scene heaping scorn on southern backwardness -- Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward Angel and Wilber J. Cash in his classic The Mind of the South.
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.
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.)
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.