The legislature’s bill to ban limitations on gas stoves is little more than a juvenile exercise in Berkeley-bashing. Following 20 other red states, the General Assembly has peevishly introduced a proposal to preempt our state’s local governments from requiring clean-powered appliances in new homes. Hippies, take that.
Passing stupid and embarrassing legislation is hardly a novel pastime for the North Carolina General Assembly, nor is joining into waves of mutual red-state imitation. From a state currency (prohibited, ironically, by conservatives in the original North Carolina constitution) to vicious attacks on trans healthcare, this legislature delights in exploring the remotest crannies of conservative rabbit holes. But this volley against the ghost of the Sixties has a surprising significance. For all its pettiness, the gas-stove ban reveals a dynamic that has fundamentally reshaped the state’s politics.
Look at the concluding quote in the N&O’s piece on this bill: “We believe this is a proactive step that will protect job creators from harmful and costly energy choice mandates.” That doggerel came from a spokesman for the NC Chamber, North Carolina’s most powerful business group. Without digressing into a close textual analysis, it’s valuable to consider how thoroughly right-wing the Chamber flack’s comment happened to be. “Costly,” “mandates,” “job creators”: These are Republican bromides. And his group was accompanied by several other sizable enchiladas in the state’s business community.
The business lobby, in other words, has solidly aligned itself with the Republicans and their right-wing ideology. Because tort reform has hampered the trial lawyers and organized labor hardly exists, a North Carolina political party that benefits from the full support of the business establishment will enjoy a concomitant dominance in political combat. That’s because North Carolina lacks what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing forces”: organized power centers that can shape the political economy in a direction contrary to the plutocratic structure preferred by most businessmen.
North Carolina’s business community was not always a bastion of Republican conservatism. We’ve always been a plutocracy–again, those countervailing forces–but we were once, in V.O. Key’s phrase, a “progressive plutocracy.” Back then, the business community was divided in philosophy. A reactionary wing, growing out of the conservative textile industry, adhered to strict anti-labor, low-wage, libertarian dogma. This was the establishment that drew a young Jesse Helms to work in lobbying for the banking industry. But starting in the mid-twentieth century with Governor O. Max Gardner, a more enlightened cohort of businessmen advanced what would become a more balanced vision of the economy, with public education a priority even as business continued to receive broad deference from the General Assembly.
That this second tradition has wilted (at least within the lobbying community) is a serious problem for North Carolina progressives. In addition to the financial disadvantages of losing business support, the business community enjoys a great deal of cultural prestige in North Carolina. Thus, business’s alliance with the Republicans gives the GOP a patina of inherent legitimacy. For better or worse, North Carolina political parties must have a ballast of commercial backing in order for many voters to see them as legitimate. Democrats need to once again make themselves welcome in the boardroom.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.