This piece was first published July 14, 2013 and is part of our Best of PoliticsNC 2013. It’s an appropriate piece to be republished on the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. If you enjoy this blog, please consider a donation to help keep us afloat.
This week, one of my Tea Partier tro…um, “friends” on Facebook asked me, “What good has the Democratic Party done for North Carolina in the past fifty years?” I ignored his question because, after months of his dominating my Facebook page with ideological gibberish, I knew there was no answer I could give that would satisfy him or even lead to an intelligent discussion. But his question did get me thinking about what’s been done right and what hasn’t.
Fifty years ago, the country was in the throes of the Civil Rights movement. In North Carolina, under the guidance of Democratic Governor Terry Sanford, we avoided the violence that marred neighboring states and moved toward integration of our society with much less rancor than the rest of the South. While we had our own struggles, like the Charlotte busing episode, our leaders realized that the world was changing and North Carolina had better prepare to change with it.
To meet those changes, we made a conscious decision to compete at the top of the economic food chain instead of the bottom. Instead of focusing on low taxes, low wages and no unions, we would attract industry by offering state-of-the-art research and development facilities, modern infrastructure and a well-trained workforce. We would keep them here by offering a high quality of life that included good schools, modern entertainment venues and well-preserved vacation destinations.
We created the Research Triangle Park that became an economic engine that is still the driving force behind much of North Carolina’s economy. We built a world class university system so we could attract top scientists, doctors, engineers and, yes, even writers, artists and musicians. We developed one of the nation’s top community college systems to make sure we had one of best trained workforces in the country.
In addition, the Democratic-controlled legislature, in conjunction with other Southern states and at the direction of a government-funded think tank, liberalized banking laws, making it possible to own and merge banks across state lines. The legislation resulted in North Carolina becoming a national banking powerhouse and set Charlotte on a path of unprecedented growth.
In the mountains and at the coast, we made smart decisions about regulating development to preserve their natural beauty and environmental stability. In the process, we made tourism our largest industry, allowing us to collect tax revenue from people from out of state. We made North Carolina a destination.
Under Jim Hunt II, we turned our attention to public education. We built Smart Start, a nationally recognized program that prepares children from underprivileged backgrounds for school. We raised teacher pay to the national average and we cut class sizes. While schools vary greatly, as they do in almost every state, overall we’ve seen clear and steady progress, including public schools ranked among the best in the nation.
I’m sure I’ve left some things out, but that, in a nutshell, is what Democrats have done in the past fifty years. As a result, North Carolina has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation. We’re consistently ranked as one of the best places to do business and live in the country.
But we’ve certainly had our failings, too. Our tax code is woefully out of date and we suffered more during the recession as a result. We let cronyism run rampant, creating the scandals that plagued the Easley and Perdue administrations. Protecting political insiders and their turf discouraged new ideas and new ways of thinking about government.
Most significantly, we failed to adequately respond to the decimation of our manufacturing and tobacco industries, leaving rural North Carolina in dire straits. Since 2010, 47 of our 100 counties, all rural, are losing population. Our unemployment rate, the fifth highest in the nation, is driven by a lack of jobs in the rural sector, not urban ones.
And that’s the opportunity Republicans had. They could come in and clean out the deadwood, offer new ideas about jump starting the rural economy and fix our out-of-date tax code.
Instead, they fell back on the same tired ideas and pandered to their right-wing, Tea Party base. They’ve talked abortion, guns and religion instead of economic development. Instead of finding a way to reform our tax system while maintaining it’s progressivity, they’ve focused on giving tax cuts to the rich and corporations while shifting the tax burden onto the middle-class.
They’ve schemed to preserve power for power’s sake. They’ve stripped away the authority of municipalities run by Democrats and searched for ways to disenfranchise unfriendly voters. They’ve essentially launched an assault on our democracy.
Finally, instead of building on the institutions that led North Carolina out of poverty, they’ve worked to tear them down. They will cut our public schools, our early education programs and even our much-lauded university system. Instead of viewing them as part of our economic engine, they view them as glorified welfare programs and they have unabashed disdain for anyone who needs public assistance unless they’ve got “Inc.” behind their name.
And therein lies the fundamental difference between North Carolina Democrats and the current breed of Republicans running our state. Democrats believe that if we invest in people, infrastructure and institutions of learning, that businesses will come. We believe that wise management of our natural resources creates as much opportunity as exploiting them. We believe that government can work in partnership with business to create a high quality of life and sustainable jobs. We believe that because that’s what we’ve done.
Republicans, in contrast, believe that government should get out of the business of economic development altogether. They see public education, at all levels, as expenditures, instead of investments. They believe that private companies and individuals should be able to exploit our land and natural resources with few or no regulations. And they believe that low wages, low taxes and less regulation are the keys to economic growth.
In short, Democrats want to compete with Silicon Valley, Rt. 128 in Boston and in the global economy at the top of the economic food chain. Republicans want to compete with Mississippi and South Carolina. I grew up 10 miles north of the South Carolina line. I don’t want to live there.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >